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The ‘4:44’ Exit Survey: Does Jay-Z Still Have It?

The Ringer staff ruminates on the beats, rhymes, and (extremely personal) life from Hov’s 13th studio album

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

A lot has happened in the time since Jay-Z dropped his last (notably bad) album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, in 2013. His daughter Blue is no longer a toddler, and Beyoncé recently gave birth to a set of twin siblings — just over a year after releasing Lemonade, a visual album that spawned approximately a million infidelity memes. Jay’s 13th studio album, 4:44, released Friday, delves into the 47-year-old rapper’s own personal experiences of marriage and family life — with plenty of nods to his wealth along the way. Here, Ringer staffers run through the highs and lows, ponder our own comparative broke-ness, and try to figure out if Hov is more family man than rapper in 2017.

1. What is your tweet-length review of ‘4:44’?

Hannah Giorgis: I can’t believe how much I’m enjoying this delightfully produced black capitalist manifesto.

Sean Fennessey: If Lemonade obviated Jay’s ability to age gracefully, 4:44 has at least allowed him to do so peacefully.

Amanda Dobbins: Therapy is real! (Also, this sounds great.)

Jonathan Tjarks: Rap for guys trying to manage their investment portfolios. Not as boring as it sounds!

Matt James: Jay’s very public infidelity has fueled a resurgence in authenticity and purpose. He’s not bored anymore. 4:44 is a rap therapy session.

Victor Luckerson: A deeply unknowable persona mines personal anguish in a revelatory way? Might as well call this Lemonade 2: The Gift and the Curse.

Donnie Kwak: Heart no longer cold as assassins.

Micah Peters: Remember when O.J. Mayo thought he could take Michael Jordan because MJ was old and it turned out MJ was just resting up?

Andrew Gruttadaro:

2. Does this redeem late-period (and/or post-40) Jay?

Peters: It’s Uncle Hov now.

Giorgis: Yes, but not so much so that I want another album after it. 4:44 is cool, Jay; let’s quit while we’re ahead (for real this time).

Fennessey: If anything, it shows that Jay Z is likely going to be able to do what he always wanted to do: Be a credible, beloved artist well into his 40s and maybe even his 50s. Frank Sinatra returned to no. 1 on the Billboard charts after a long break in 1966 with Strangers in the Night — it was his last album with arranger Nelson Riddle, and confirmed a kind of comeback for Ol’ Blue Eyes. Jay sees himself in the mold of a Sinatra, an artist who transcends trend and era. Sometimes it has felt as if he’s purposefully made ill-advised albums to leave open the possibility of a comeback narrative. If Magna Carta Holy Grail was a corporately funded fiasco, 4:44 is a corporately funded apologia.

Luckerson: There’s no redeeming Magna Carta Holy Grail, which took “I’m a business, man” to its horrifying extreme, but 4:44 proves that Hov has rekindled his ability to turn his ruthlessly capitalist spirit into compelling music.

Dobbins: I was fine with corny Jay, and “sitting in the back of the ‘Reformation’ video looking duly shamed, but saying nothing” Jay was something of a revelation as far as contrition and public performance go. This is obviously a huge musical improvement, if only because it’s way better than the words “cell phone Tidal album.” But public-persona-wise, I think I liked him better when he was sorry and quiet?

James: Almost. If he’d jumped ship on Tidal we’d be at full redemption.

Gruttadaro: No — the pointless, bland Samsung commercial Magna Carta Holy Grail still exists — but at least this album might potentially serve as a blueprint (pun intended) for how to successfully be old and be a rapper at the same time.

Kwak: C’mon, this is Hov. He needs no redemption. Watch your mouth!

3. What is your favorite song?

Giorgis: The title track is resplendent, but I can see myself keeping “Bam” on repeat for a lot of the summer too.

Fennessey: The radical transparency of “4:44” is bracing — “not meant to cry and die alone in these mansions” is Rebecca-level melodrama. Over the years, Jay has used his past as a means to mythologize, to build up a superhero gangster vision of success — he’d express regret but also confirm his success story. The acknowledgement of a boorish youth and unfaithful adulthood is a different kind of reckoning than we’ve ever heard from him — one part therapy jargon (“I will be emotionally available”!), one part confessional.

Dobbins: “4:44” is an imperfect apology but a moving and fascinating cultural document!

Gruttadaro: “Kill Jay Z,” a perfect, bleeding-heart album opener that very rapidly lets you know that on 4:44, Jay isn’t pulling punches on anyone — especially himself.

Tjarks: “Smile.” One of Jay’s most mature songs.

Peters: “Family Feud” because HE NAMECHECKED BECKY (with the good, tricky hair) ON A SONG WHERE BEYONCÉ DOES BACKING VOCALS.

James: “Marcy Me,” hands down. On this track there are no attempts to convince us of his relevance in 2017. This is Jay strolling down the path of his memories, handing us shout-outs like parents giving away candy on Halloween. He’s rapping about what he’s most comfortable rapping about: his roots. The track soars as Jay looks inward and backward.

Luckerson: “Smile,” which is simultaneously poignant, uplifting, and funny.

Kwak: On first go-round, I like “Family Feud” because it’s an old-man admonishing disguised as a generational reconciliation. But “Marcy Me” is the one song that stands out here as real vintage Hov.

4. What is your least favorite song?

Kwak: The title track, a.k.a. “Big Simpin’.” The beat is godly. But not like this, Jay. Not like this.

Giorgis: I could’ve lived without “The Story of O.J.”

Fennessey: Seems a bit peevish to complain about a song that samples Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” but “Smile” feels like a Blueprint session leftover more than an essential document.

Dobbins: Disclaimer: Barry Jenkins is a genius, and Moonlight was the best film of 2016. Now please read Jay’s explanation of the song “Moonlight”: “The hook is ‘We stuck in La La Land/Even if we win, we gonna lose.’ It’s like a subtle nod to La La Land winning the Oscar, and then having to give it to Moonlight. It’s really a commentary on the culture and where we’re going.” OK.

James: “Moonlight.” The Fu-Gee-La sample is a little distracting. This is the shortest track on the album because there’s nowhere else to go with it. It’s a solid Jay rant and then it’s over.

Luckerson: “Kill Jay Z,” because songs that repeat “Jay-Z” too much always get annoying eventually (see also: “Jockin’ Jay-Z”).

5. How much money does Jay owe No I.D.?

Giorgis: Approximately one Picasso’s worth.

Fennessey: I’m suspicious of the one-producer strategy — Jay built his career on a powerful ability to translate the disparate sounds of regions, fusing them to build a broader vision of rap and leading fans to discover new music. But No I.D. is an appropriate corrective to the bombast of Magna Carta — this is an intimate album in need of warmth. No one has warmer drums, better samples (that Hannah Williams pull on “4:44”!), or more ease than Dion.

Dobbins: I think No I.D. owns Sprint now?

James: More money than anyone I know will make in their entire lifetime. Please also give a huge payday to the person who decided that there should be only one person producing the entire album. Jay’s tone remains consistent throughout the album and the individual tracks are strengthened by the entire production’s unified tone.

Luckerson: He needs to put him in his will somewhere, so he can just kick back and chill somewhere.

Gruttadaro: However much Sprint paid the Verizon guy to start wearing yellow.

6. Best feature?

Giorgis: Beyoncé’s “Amens” on “Family Feud” grant the song cohesion and gravity while somehow also making the song just float.

Fennessey: Frank Ocean and Jay should consider a Best of Both Worlds reboot.

Jordan Coley: Frank Ocean on “Caught Their Eyes.” Frank does that weird voice thing again. I love when Frank does that weird voice thing.

James: Beyoncé gently sliding into the background of “Family Feud.” We were all wondering if she’d show up on this album and she gracefully steps in to take “Family Feud” to the next level while strengthening the familial theme of the song.

Luckerson: Gloria Carter (also the best feature on The Black Album).

Gruttadaro: The very savvy businesswoman Blue Ivy Carter asking, “What’s a will?” on “Legacy.”

Kwak: I don’t listen to Jay-Z albums for the features.

7. Best washed lyric?

Peters: The one where he equates being the realest rapper rapping to being the world’s tallest midget. And then remembers that “midget” isn’t a word you’re supposed to say.

Giorgis: Tie between “Ain’t no such thing as an ugly billionaire / I’m cute” and “I be skippin’ leg day / I still run the world.”

Coley: “I coulda bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo / For like 2 million / That same building today is worth 25 million / Guess how I’m feelin’? Dumbo.” Everything about this line is Uncle at Cookout™. You walk over to the grill (Tidal) and all you want to do is get your hot dog (10 post-prime Jay-Z songs) and get the hell out of there. But no. Uncle Hov has to tell you all about his missed real estate opportunities from 20 years ago. Where is this even going? Is this a pun? Is he making a pun, again? “Guess how I’m feelin’?”

Kwak: The “Dumbo” line on “The Story of O.J.” feels like a bad dad joke but I’m going with I don’t be on the ‘Gram goin’ ham / Givin’ information to the pork, that’s all spam” from “Moonlight.” You’re not truly washed until you have an active disdain for social media.

Fennessey: “Y’all on the ‘Gram holdin’ money to your ear”

Luckerson: “Niggas will rip your shit off Tidal just to spite you, what did I do?” My first Jay-Z album was a burned CD of The Blueprint 2. It’s not spite; it’s habit, Jay.

8. Who caught the worst stray?

Peters: If you love Future, please check on him.

James: Eric Benét. “You almost went Eric Benét / Let the baddest girl in the world get away.” This lyric has obviously been sitting in Jay’s notebook for the past 14 years and it’s safe to assume that the entire reason he cheated on Bey was so he could finally use this line.

Giorgis: Eric Benét, who then proceeded to embarrass himself further, because what else do people who cheat on Halle Berry know how to do:

Tjarks: I can’t believe he kept the line about Jews owning all of the property in America in there.

Kwak: I appreciate the hot-off-the-presses jab at Reverend Al’s selfie game on “Family Feud.”

Luckerson: The Prince estate, which recently ended the exclusivity agreement between the artist and Tidal. Good for music fans, bad for Jay-Z, but at least it gave us these casually caustic bars: “This guy had ‘Slave’ on his face / You think he wanted the masters with his masters? / You greedy bastards sold tickets to walk through his house / I’m surprised you ain’t auction off the casket.”

Gruttadaro: Not knowing the full extent of the situation, the stuff about Kanye’s mental health feels extremely harsh to me, but considering Kanye started it with multiple Jay-Z-focused rants, it wasn’t surprising to hear Jay take some shots. So my answer to this is Eric Benét! At the beginning of this week, dude was probably not expecting to be reminded of losing Halle Berry by Jay-Z — and then by thousands on the internet.

9. Do you believe the admissions about his personal life? Is this album too personal?

Giorgis: Oh I definitely believe Jay’s admissions. Why bother putting that out into the world so soon after the birth of your twins if not to seek absolution? The album is certainly personal, but Jay still traffics in plenty of braggadocio; the admissions make 4:44 feel real, a musical statement rather than a contrived return to music.

Fennessey: The most cynical part of me sees a years-long marketing plan — paid for by networks and phone companies, benefiting a self-owned streaming service — between the most powerful couple in culture being executed perfectly. That said, I never expected The Dragging of Jay-Z to be a public art exhibit, and here we are. The album reads less like apology to wife and more like shame before family. Children of divorce know that when the kids lose respect, the parents tend to spiral.

James: There’s no such thing as too personal for Jay-Z in 2017. Show us who you really are as an aging rapper. I might not connect with Jay’s musings about real estate and art investment but it makes me believe all the other stuff he’s rapping about.

Kwak: Quoting the late, great, one-time Jay-Z rival Prodigy: “Spent too much time with wifey.”

Dobbins: I’m not a conspiracy theorist: I believe Bey carried Blue, I believe Lemonade was about infidelity, and I believe that Rachel Roy is probably Becky. But there is something so … coordinated about this album and its emotional content. Maybe that’s the therapy talking?

Tjarks: I don’t particularly care about the tabloid stuff, but as Kanye would say, you got to rap about what inspires you. If art isn’t honest, it’s wack, which has been Jay’s problem for a while.

Luckerson: As with Lemonade, I care less about where the ingredients of this tea were sourced than I do about the overall flavor. The gossipy morsels help strengthen the narrative of a couple driven by both love and ambition. The Knowles-Carters have reframed their ascension to billionaire status as a new frontier in the struggle for racial equality as they try to build black generational wealth and share it with their children and brethren. The rhetoric is clever, cunning, or craven, depending on how you view them (I’m in the “cunning” camp). No matter what it’s a way to make captivating music that feels honest and relatable when their day-to-day lives are a universe apart from the average person’s.

Gruttadaro: After Beyoncé’s Lemonade, the only way Jay-Z was going to do anything worthwhile was by being this personal. Bars about watch faces weren’t going to cut it.

10. Where does ‘4:44’ rank among Jay’s albums?

Fennessey:
1. Reasonable Doubt
2. Vol. 3 … Life and Times of S. Carter
3. The Blueprint
4. The Black Album
5. The Dynasty: Roc La Familia
6. Vol. 2 … Hard Knock Life
7. 4:44
8. American Gangster
9. In My Lifetime, Vol. 1
10. The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse
11. The Blueprint 3
12. Magna Carta Holy Grail
13. Kingdom Come

James: Not in the bottom half. This is the best JAY-Z album since JAY-Z was Jay-Z. Welcome back, Shawn.
Kwak: I’d slot it just below the middle, but that certainly doesn’t make it bad.

Luckerson: Take Jay-Z’s own rankings and slot the new LP right below American Gangster as an admirable return to form (oh, and kick Magna Carta to the very bottom of the list).