Jay-Z is back. While 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail proved divisive amongst even Jay’s most hardcore fans, 4:44 is a triumphant return to form for the Brooklyn rapper. It’s not just one of Jay’s strongest projects – it’s one of his most cohesive and coherent, both conceptually and production wise. At it’s best moments, 4:44 feels like a summation of Jay’s career to this point – there’s a certain soulfulness that throws back to his classic albums, but it’s Jay’s knack for simple but potent lyricism and emphasis on high production value that gives 4:44 it’s undeniably modern yet throwback style sound. It’s introspective, memorable, and decidedly apologetic; it’s Jay-Z, back in action.
With No I.D. on sole production duty, 4:44’s ten tracks are a concise yet deliberately focused series of songs. Soul samples have always lent themselves so well to Jay’s talents as a rapper, and No I.D.’s flips of Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder shine. 4:44’s instrumentation fuses classic style, soulful beats with multifaceted modern production, resulting in something that sounds exactly like what a 2017 Jay-Z album should. Tracks like Kill Jay Z and title track 4:44 feature grand, sprawling instrumentals to match Jay’s flow, while more lowkey cuts like Caught Their Eyes or Marcy Me are just as equally well put together. These are the sort of beats that feel like they were made for a particular artist – the synergy between Jay’s vocals and No I.D.’s production is undeniable.
Conceptually too, 4:44 is one of Jay’s most thought out projects. While the album centers around it’s introspective title track, 4:44 goes beyond simply being an apology album and response to Beyonce’s Lemonade. Jay delves into his personal guilt regarding his extramarital affairs and betraying his family on the title track, but the album as a whole is much more a reflection on fame, the self, and Jay’s life over the past twenty years. Jay’s bars might appear basic at times, but it’s that same simplicity that makes Jay such a great rapper – it’s more about Jay’s charisma, his flow, and his punchlines than any sort of multisyllabic rhymes or hyperlyrical verses.
Jay’s never been the sort of rapper to beat around the bush – all of 4:44’s lyricism to straightforward, to the point, and unabashedly honest. Jay’s openness gives 4:44 a retrospective sort of quality; nothing seems too off limits. Smile addresses Jay’s family life, his relationship with his mother, and her homosexuality, while The Story of O.J. explores racism and African-American identity. There’s plenty of casual showboating and classic rap braggadocio too, but Jay’s best moments are where he has the most to say. Jay breaks down divisions in modern hip hop on Family Feud, while closing track Legacy sees Jay discuss his impact on music and the legacy for his family name. 4:44 is so preoccupied with ideas of family and legacy that on a first listen it’s easy to look past what holds the album together – that constant sense of self reflection.
Despite the short tracklist, there’s so many good moments in little over half an hour. Opener Kill Jay Z is an epic start to the album, musing on both fame and longtime friend Kanye’s recent mental instability before moving into the soulful grooves of The Story of O.J. and Smile. Frank Ocean provides a hook for the instantly memorable Caught Their Eyes, while similarly catchy piano chords drive Marcy Me forward. 4:44 and Family Feud serve as a pair of powerful centerpieces to the album, both grand, unforgettable, and heartwrenchingly personal tracks. Unfortunately, songs like Bam and Moonlight seem to slump in comparison to the rest of the album, and while still decent tracks, they’re forgettable once audiences move into the album’s final moments. But 4:44’s strengths so strongly outweigh its flaws – from start to finish, it’s a solid listen, and none of these tracks are below average in any way.
4:44 is far better than it has any right to be. For an album about an old school rapper struggling with the guilt of cheating on his wife, betraying his kids, and bragging about his wealth and legacy for ten tracks, 4:44 is so much more catchy and fantastic than anyone wants it to be. Jay strives for a vintage sound, yet nothing feels outdated about this album. It’s a deeply personal album, consumed with introspective strife, but it’s an album that from beginning to end feels cohesive and unified. Jay-Z is back, and we all hope he’s here to stay.
84 / 100