4.44: Why JAY-Z remains one of the all-time greats in hip hop

4.44: Why JAY-Z remains one of the all-time greats in hip hop

The rapper's 13th studio album confirms what we always knew

When Beyoncé released her visual album Lemonade in 2016, it prompted much discussion about its status as a piece of black feminist art. For many, the album was an insight into a journey of pain and redemption, the rebirth of a black woman, finding her strength among isolation and hurt. But it also hinted at Beyoncé's own personal story of heartbreak, with suggestions of infidelity on JAY-Z's part prompting the album to be seen as an act of retribution.

For over a year, there have been expectations of a comeback from JAY-Z with an appropriate response to the allegations. But no one could have anticipated that this response would come loaded with such vulnerability and self-awareness.

4.44 was quickly labelled a reply to Lemonade prior to its release, with many seeing it as a chance for JAY-Z to tell his side of the story. But it is anything but that; if Lemonade is an act of defiance and universal call to arms for black women, 4.44 is an admittance of weakness and a reminder to stay humble.

At just over 36 minutes, the album reads like a confessional, with bold claims, the disclosure of hard truths and a little self-mockery thrown in. Opener 'Kill Jay Z' sets the tone, with the rapper immediately distancing himself from the old JAY-Z and calling for the assassination of his ego. By letting go of this side of himself, he enables the rest of the album to continue in the same vein, with honesty and sincerity at the forefront of his intentions. 'Smile' takes advantage of this and plays as a definite highlight, exploring how the past can allow you to move forward positively, if you let it. The track features an unfamiliar openness from JAY-Z, with him even revealing that his mother, Gloria Carter, who appears in the song, is a lesbian: 'Mama had four kids, but she's a lesbian / Had to pretend so long that she's a thespian / Had to hide in the closet, so she medicate / Society shame and the pain was too much to take.'

Elsewhere, he delves into discussions of black American culture and identity, as on 'The Story of O.J', which makes use of a stunning sample of Nina Simone's 'Four Women'. The track includes perhaps the most witty and priceless lyric of the whole album: 'Y'all think it's bougie, I'm like, it's fine / But I'm tryin' to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99', a reference to the album being a Tidal exclusive.

'Caught Their Eyes' featuring Frank Ocean is a harsh dig at the music industry, with reference to the exploitation of Prince's death, while 'Moonlight' critiques modern day rap and popular culture, with a nod to Moonlight winning the Best Picture Oscar over La La Land: 'Y'all stuck in La La Land / Even when we win, we gon' lose.'

The climax of the album is notably title track '4.44', which refers to the time in the morning that JAY-Z awoke to write the song. The track, like the album on the whole, represents a spiritual awakening, with remorse and tenderness at the heart of its message. It's an open apology to Beyoncé, with a number of lines beginning with JAY-Z emphatically stating 'I apologise' but it also broaches relatively new ground in hip hop with its treatment of topics such a fatherhood and the failures of a husband.

With 4.44, JAY-Z has delivered something wholly unexpected but largely brilliant. It draws attention to the rapper's pragmatism and emotional intelligence through tracks that are achingly honest and constructed with a maturity akin to hip hop's past greats. The album is not a takedown or rebuttal against Lemonade; it's a recapitulation of past events, viewed through the lens of the guilty party. And like Beyoncé, JAY-Z has embraced the political, turning more heavily to issues of race and class in 4.44 with a renewed sense of self.

That JAY-Z is one of the best rappers of all time is not merely conjecture or a statement of opinion, it is a fact. Lyrically, his rhymes and flow have been revered since the early days of debut Reasonable Doubt, with his stylistic dexterity underlined in his always striking use of entendre, wordplay and metaphor. Commercially, he's one of the best-selling musicians of all time, with a net worth of somewhere around $810 million. Generically, he's the only rapper to have ever been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, with Barack Obama calling him a 'true American original'.

JAY-Z's creative and commercial successes may make him one of the all-time greats, but 4.44 is proof that he remains miles ahead of his contemporaries. As Kool G Rap once commented, 'Dude is in a class by himself. Dudes ain't even touching him as far as I'm concerned.'1

Out now on Tidal. Physical release to be confirmed.

1. Quote is from Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois' Anthology of Rap. It doesn't appear to be online, but this tumblr page has it written out in full.

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