For more than a decade, Jay-Z tried — and generally failed — to sell middle age as an exciting frontier for a superstar rapper. He dedicated whole albums to the effort. There’s 2006’s Kingdom Come, where the in-joke of the songs and their music videos is that Jay-Z, veteran of a young man’s game, is too old to be making this album in the first place. There’s 2009’s The Blueprint 3, where Jay-Z dedicated his lead single to whining about the popularity of Auto-Tune among Lil Wayne’s generation of rappers and singers. There’s 2011’s Watch the Throne, where Jay plays the investment portfolio adviser while his duet partner Kanye West plays the proud, ecstatic fool. And then there’s Jay-Z’s last solo album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, released four years ago to nothing but groans from critics of the rapper’s opulence, so exclusive as to be off-putting to anyone other than Warren Buffet. “Black excellence” is one thing; Magna Carta was pure wealth porn. Jay had been trading almost exclusively in the latter for quite some time — until last week.
On Friday, Jay-Z dropped 4:44, his 13th studio album, and his most captivating solo effort in at least a decade (since the release of American Gangster in 2007). Full of world-weary adages and pro-black business guidance, 4:44 is the definitive retirement album that Jay seems to have been driving toward all along. It’s a more self-centered take on the “black excellence” conceits of Watch the Throne, and far more focused, urgent, and purposeful than Magna Carta. Jay spends much of the album confirming and apologizing for the sensational indiscretions that his wife, Beyoncé, publicized last spring with the release of Lemonade. But his marital penance on songs such as “Kill Jay Z,” “Family Feud,” and the title track forms just one thread of a far more comprehensive reformation; the man who wrote “Big Pimpin’” now swears by therapy and the hard work of personal growth. This album, then, serves as caution so you, Blue, Rumi, and Sir don’t have to go through that. It’s not Confessions (neither Augustine nor Usher’s). It’s Between the World and Me: a memoirist’s review of his own mortality and gravest cautions, compiled less for his own sake at this point and more so for his kin and posterity.
Still, Jay-Z is a 47-year-old rapper, and he didn’t just tuck away this album on a USB locket in the Carter family vault; he sold the album as a Tidal exclusive to shore up his putatively black-owned streaming-music business’s value proposition and subscriber base. He’s also clearly made this album to rehabilitate himself as a musician who is otherwise easily eclipsed by his wife. Beyoncé is the biggest musical act in the world, a singer in her creative prime, at the peak of her powers and influence. Jay-Z may be a hip-hop legend, but now he is predominantly a famous husband, an ideally static figure whose rap career is largely ceremonial at this point. For the most part, critics regard Jay’s new music on Beyoncé’s terms, hailing 4:44 as a late, apologetic complement to Lemonade, released last spring. So defined by his marriage is Jay-Z that he effectively had no choice but to peg his album to Lemonade; so defined by his betrayal of that marriage is Jay-Z that he effectively had no choice but to frame the album as a clinical catharsis.
Indeed, the refreshing thing about 4:44, the overall quality that distinguishes it from the decade’s worth of metered financial advice that Jay-Z has released in album form since his false retirement in 2003, is how personable the songs are. Until now, he has generally carried himself as a village elder, espousing wisdom that more often than not comes across as rank condescension. On “The Story of O.J.,” he picks one such fight over the classic “money phone” millennial rapper pose (“Y’all on the ‘gram holdin’ money to your ear / There’s a disconnect; we don’t call that money over here,” Jay raps.) Elsewhere, though, he’s defending my generation’s right to skin-tight fashion and supposedly feminine flair — “like 2Pac ain’t have a nose ring, too.”
Jay’s never been a hip-hop reactionary, but he’s also never sounded so avowedly open to everyone, including himself, living their truth. On “Smile,” Jay-Z reveals his mother, Gloria Carter, who also speaks on the song, to be a lesbian. It’s a powerful moment not just because of its progressivism, but also because these disclosures are all coming from a rapper who once mistook invulnerability for maturity. Dispelling that myth is the pronounced triumph of 4:44, and it suggests that Jay-Z may have in fact emerged from all this drama that he’s caused as a better man.
Four years ago, Jay-Z dropped the hyphen from his stage name. Two weeks ago, he added it back.
It’s a trivial alteration; in both instances the press made a big to-do about it, regardless. But it does get me wondering why a rapper would bother to micromanage his stage persona in this particular way.
Naturally, I think of Puffy, who, like many popular entertainers, has always gone by several, disorganized nicknames; but who, unlike other rappers, made a point of publicizing his latest change of persona as if it marked a new chapter in human history. Puffy changed his name from Puffy to P. Diddy in March 2001, three months before he’d release his third album, and less than two weeks after a Manhattan court had cleared him of all charges (gun possession, bribery) linked to an infamous December 1999 nightclub shooting that embroiled him in controversy, derailed his relationship with Jennifer Lopez, and imperiled his musical dominance. He emerged scathed, but he emerged nonetheless. In 2001, Puffy — sorry, P. Diddy — was a new man. His rebranding wasn’t just a publicity stunt. It was a step toward absolution.
I suppose none of this is lost on Puffy’s longtime friend, Jay-Z, who once also nearly lost everything as a result of a violent nightclub altercation (and in the same year as Puffy’s bust-up, no less), but whose darkest hour fell only once Solange clocked him in that fateful elevator at the Met three years ago. (Both incidents are explicitly referenced on 4:44.) When Jay-Z, hyphen included, makes a song called “Kill Jay Z,” he isn’t just spreading himself open to your sideline marriage counseling. He is bringing that unscrupulous iteration of himself to a ceremonious close. “Kill Jay Z, they’ll never love you,” he raps. “You’ll never be enough. Let’s just keep it real.”
Jay may be the definitive Aging Rap Star, but he is hardly alone on the peaceful outskirts of obsolescence. Five years ago, his former hip-hop rival, Nas, took a tact similar to 4:44 when he released Life Is Good, a post-divorce document of the rapper’s split from the R&B singer Kelis. Nas, like Jigga, admits that he cheated, and that his indiscretion instantly became the great error of his life, one that will haunt him into old age — and that’s only if he’s blessed enough to live so long.
“They say the coolest playas and foulest heartbreakers in the world / God gets us back: He makes us have precious little girls,” Nas raps on “Daughters.”
“You risked that for Blue?,” Jay-Z raps on “4:44,” “that” meaning threesomes, and the presumably mislaid sentence encapsulating the rapper’s regret that he risked the well-being of his daughter Blue for that. There is a sense in which the sentiment — women only become sovereign to my mind once I have to cope with raising a girl — is the most ironically self-centered sort of empathy to which the reformed womanizer inevitably cops. It’s no breakthrough in human ethics. But it’s a breakthrough in one man’s family life, and that’s the modest extent to which one might ever expect a rapper to serve as a personal role model for living right. On “4:44,” Jay credits Beyoncé — 12 years his junior — with maturing ahead of him. As a rationale for serial infidelity, it’s a piss-poor excuse. But it’s made for some beautiful music now that the midlife crisis is behind us.
“It was almost like a therapy session for all of us,” producer No I.D. said about the 4:44 recording sessions in a recent interview with The New York Times. It so happens that No I.D., who made several beats featured on Life Is Good, also produced 4:44 by himself. Here No I.D. lends Jay’s album a sample-driven runtime, varied in tone but coherent in No I.D.’s nervous, twitching style of production. His beats suit Hov well despite tracks like “Kill Jay Z” and “4:44” simultaneously sounding like the most intricate, challenging time signatures Jay’s ever rapped over. In the throes of self-discovery, Jay sounds looser and wilder than ever.
No I.D. says he and Jay asked themselves, “Has there been anyone in any genre that really tapped into themselves on a new level at that age?” It’s no surprise that musicians in their 40s might locate new springs of wisdom and modes of self-expression. In Jay-Z’s case, the only shock is that it took him so long to see beyond wealth as the only philosophical conclusion of his life and music.