JAY-Z Wrestles with Identity on 4:44

JAY-Z has gotten personal in the past, but his latest album, 4:44, is by far his most introspective work to date. The name originates from the time in the morning JAY woke up to write the title track, which is an apology to his wife Beyoncé over his infidelity. This album is essentially just a slice out of JAY’s life and his current situation.

Conceptually, each track tackles a different topic, but the constant theme of duality unifies the whole project. The main binary is between Shawn Carter and his alter-ego Jay Z—emphasis on ego. Before the album’s release, Shawn changed his stage name from Jay Z to JAY-Z. While that may seem pointless, it actually means this album is from a different perspective than previous projects, hence the opening track “Kill Jay Z”. He is no longer the heartless, drug dealer he used to be and is now a more conscious family man.

While JAY spends the whole album trying to move forward, he does have moments where he struggles with and even relapses into his former self. He opens the banger track “Bam” with the tone setting line “Shawn was on that gospel shit/I was on the total f*ckin’ opposite”. Basically JAY was actually a straight and narrow kid who created the drug dealer persona Jay Z to survive in his environment. This is furthered by the line “Shawn was in flight mode, I bought a Pyrex”.

The biggest moment of progression for JAY comes on “Smile”, with his acceptance of his mother being a lesbian. In 2017 this may not seem too shocking, but when you consider JAY’s past homophobia it is definitely something to applaud. He has always held his mother in very high regard so of course he feels incredibly guilty for all the gay slurs he used on his early albums. In classic JAY fashion, the track is finished with a spoken word piece by his mother Gloria Carter about her time hiding from her sexuality, and it is truly moving. Intentionally, the next track is “Caught Your Eyes” which opens with vocals from Frank Ocean, who as most know is also gay.

The track “Moonlight”—named after last year’s Best Picture Winner—stands out as an obvious metaphor for both his mother’s closet-homosexuality and his own masquerading as his drug dealer identity. Moonlight, the film, looks at the life of the homosexual, black protagonist Chiron and his struggle with his identity growing up in the ghetto. Chiron becomes a drug dealer in attempt to mask his own insecurities similarly to how JAY-Z created his alter-ego to survive life in the projects.

The Moonlight metaphors don’t end there though, as JAY also uses it to criticize rappers who present a fake gangster lifestyle in their music.  He opens the track by hilariously impersonating these rappers and warns them not to flash their weapons because he knows they won’t use them. JAY definitely means what he says though, especially considering he once stabbed a record executive because he heard that he may have been behind the leaking of Vol. 3….

JAY also goes at an older generation of rappers on “Family Feud” who he believes unfairly dismiss anything that’s new and foreign to them. Many of these “old-heads” grievances with the new generation comes down to their fashion choices, be it Young Thug’s love for dresses or Lil Uzi Vert’s septum piercing. To mock them, he cleverly quips “And old n***as, y’all stop actin’ brand new/Like 2Pac ain’t got a nose ring too”.

With JAY’s transformation to a new man comes with the cutting of some old ties, namely his long-time collaborator Kanye West. The opener “Kill Jay Z” juxtaposes with “I Love Kanye” off of Yeezy’s latest album The Life of Pablo. On their respective tracks, JAY seems to resent his ignorance whereas Kanye embrace’s it.  JAY calls out ‘Ye for his onstage rant about him last November, and even criticizes himself for being part of the problem between the two. JAY offers even more shots on “Bam” and “Moonlight”, with many other subliminal disses scattered throughout the album.

Past JAY projects have all featured a multitude of producers, but this album is entirely produced by No I.D. with a little help from JAY himself. No I.D.’s production here is smooth, soulful, and full of excellent samples that complement the topics JAY is rapping about. The sample of “Late Nights and Heartbreak” by Hannah Williams and The Affirmations on “4:44” is a great example this. The sampled vocals talk of running away from your mistakes and not treating someone the way you should, which perfectly parallels JAY’s feelings towards his infidelity. JAY’s emceeing is stellar, but No I.D.’s production really takes this album to the next level. The two together is the perfect combo, and seems to have brought out the best in both of them.

After a career spanning over two decades with thirteen solo albums, it is astonishing that JAY managed to release something as personal and cohesive as 4:44. As an emcee, he is just as mesmerizing as he was at the beginning of his career, with even more confidence and bravado. Personally, this is JAY’s best album since 2003’s The Black Album, which at the time he billed as his retirement from rap. If there ever were a time for JAY to retire, it would be now while he is at the top of his game once again.

Grade: A-

Recommended Tracks:

“Kill Jay Z”

“4:44”

“Bam”

“Moonlight”

“Marcy Me”

Best Line: “Y’all on the ‘Gram holdin’ money to your ear/There’s a disconnect, we don’t call that money over here” – The Story of O.J.

(Feature image: Roc Nation Records)

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