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The Most Underrated—and Fascinating—Album of 2017

Jay-Z’s ‘4:44’ was supposed to be another corporate affair. Instead, it’s the best album of the year.

“I apologize / For all the stillborns / ’Cause I wasn’t present, your body wouldn’t accept it.” And there you have it: the hardest rap lyrics of the year. The most emo, the most metal. No dead-eyed 21 Savage threat, no croaked Future boast, no imperial Kendrick Lamar proclamation could compare.

Jay-Z, nearly a billionaire and almost a half-century old—he turned 48 on Monday—sounds almost humble on the title track to his 13th solo album, 4:44, as though he’s just realized that Age triumphs over Money for everyone, every time. He is apologizing to his wife, Beyoncé, for the infidelities and other personal failings that compelled her to release the wounded and furious Lemonade, the best record of 2016. Once the consensus Greatest Rapper Alive, he prostrates himself now as a humbled father of three, mourning the other children that could’ve been, had he been a better husband. The result, however improbably, is the best record of 2017.

Tabloid prurience alone made 4:44 a sensation upon its release in late June, offering the spectacle of a very famous person groveling at the feet of his more famous wife. Track 1: “Kill Jay-Z,” wherein he goads himself into a psychological breakdown (“Cry Jay-Z / We know the pain is real / But you can’t heal what you never reveal”) and grimly imagines a future where his marriage fails completely and he’s stuck watching other men play football with his son. (Not very metal, but definitely emo.) Making just the song cry would no longer suffice.

But even lifelong fans might’ve worried that tabloid prurience was all Jay had left to offer. His last two solo albums, 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail and 2009’s The Blueprint 3, were largely soulless and corporate affairs. Even the highs got awfully cheesy—don’t forget that this is still Jay-Z’s only solo no. 1 single—and the lows were abominable. Watch the Throne, his full-length 2011 collaboration with fellow narcissist and frenemy Kanye West, has aged far better, its own “I’m planking on a million” crassness nicely undercut by the occasional burst of sincerely goofy exuberance. But Jay-Z the Artist had long ago been eclipsed by Jay-Z the Business, Man. His records now usually serve as loss leaders for his brand.

Which is to say that on 4:44, the guy who’d once tried to sell us on the notion that “30’s the new 20” warily stared down 50, which is always just 50, no matter how many Basquiats you stash in your kitchen. “I think that rap in particular is a young man’s sport,” Jay told New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet in a lengthy late-November interview. “I stood in that window a really long time. But still, no, I don’t think people are looking to me as, like, The Thing.”

So upon first contact with 4:44, you are forgiven for fixating on those relatively few moments when he addresses Beyoncé—and Solange, and “Becky”—directly. You are also forgiven for suspecting that all the other parts of this record would rank somewhere between disposable and deplorable. In short, what you probably did is fixate on “4:44.”

Good idea. First off, the extended sample—“Late Nights & Heartbreak,” from U.K. retro-soul outfit Hannah Williams & the Affirmations—is a killer, volcanic and aggrieved; Williams’s howls of “I’m never gonna treat you like I should” are piercing for the verb tense alone.

The idea, per full-album producer No I.D., was to build a sonic backdrop so romantically despondent that Jay had no choice but to confront his own romantic despondence. “I created that beat to box him into telling that story,” No I.D. told The New York Times. “I put the sample from the singer Hannah Williams—it starts off with ‘I find it so hard / When I know in my heart / I’m letting you down every day.’ I remember him hearing it and looking at me like, ‘OK, fine.’”

To hear his producer tell it, Jay rose to the challenge immediately—4:44, per the myth, is when he woke up in the morning, ready to record what he described to Williams as the most personal song he’d ever written. One that starts with him rhyming apologize and womanize and describing the genesis of a superstar marriage in almost forensic detail:

I said, “Don’t embarrass me” instead of “Be mine”
That was my proposal for us to go steady
That was your 21st birthday
You matured faster than me, I wasn’t ready

Relevant: Jay-Z is 12 years older than Beyoncé. The pathos and the desperation snowballs as the sample thunders on; he grovels extensively to his wife (“Thinkin’ of all the time / You wasted it on all this basic shit”) and to his children for the groveling he’ll be doing in the future (“My heart breaks for the day I have to explain my mistakes / And the mask goes away / And Santa Claus is fake”). Even if you’re a skeptic—even if you’re apt to dismiss all this as a pro-wrestling work, as two crafty superstars playing up their interpersonal strife to keep their underdog streaming service afloat—this is exquisite craftsmanship, tabloid drama on a prestige scale. “I was blown away,” No I.D. raved. “I just walked out of the studio and wanted to go find my wife and hug her. I told him that’s the best song he’s ever written.”

Nonetheless, 4:44 could’ve faded with the summer, another high-profile release forgotten in a few weeks, if not a few days. But this record has a scrappy, eerie intensity that only darkens with time—a testament in part to No I.D., who provides deep-soul continuity whether the supporting voice is Stevie Wonder’s, or Nina Simone’s, or Frank Ocean’s, or Damian Marley’s, or Beyoncé’s. As for Jay, there are other high-profile conflicts to address (including his ongoing cold war with Kanye) and far more triumphant personal revelations—namely, on “Smile,” the fact that his mother, Gloria Carter, came out as a lesbian. Which’d be the most compelling moment on any other rap album this year, and might in fact be the most compelling moment on this one: “Cried tears of joy when you fell in love / Don’t matter to me if it’s a him or her.”

There he goes, crying again. This record isn’t entirely a therapy session: There is controversial sociology, and lots of Just be a multimillionaire rapper like me bootstrapping philosophy, and plenty of the low-calorie boasting that comes as naturally to Jay-Z as breathing, even amid his newfound humility. The result is volatile, and occasionally exasperating, and endlessly fascinating. It’s the perfect combination of comfort and discomfort: a harsh spotlight trained on an all-time great still coming to terms with his age, still reckoning with the fact he’s no longer The Thing, stewing and stumbling and evolving into something even better.

To ride for a Jay-Z album in 2017 is to open yourself to the same cheap “LOL, Grandpa” jokes Jay-Z himself inspires—jokes that, in a weak attempt at deflection, you might have already made about him yourself. The most damning thing one can say about 4:44 as a youth-culture-zeitgeist proposition is that in late November, it was lavished with Grammy nominations, eight in all. Most notably, it’s up for Album of the Year, a first for Jay; should he win, it’d be the first rap album to take the prize since Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in 2004. That he might finally get his industry due only proves that the industry regards him as a legacy act, finally and definitively uncool enough to get the institutional respect he deserves.

It makes sense; he is the elder statesman of this year’s Album of the Year field, by a lot. Two important things happened in 1996: Jay released his debut album, Reasonable Doubt, and Lorde, also an AOTY nominee, was born. Childish Gambino and Bruno Mars are likewise luminaries for totally different generations, following entirely different blueprints. And rounding out the category, of course, is Kendrick Lamar.

The case for Lamar’s Damn. as 2017’s one true masterwork is also, to my mind, the very polite case against it: It is towering and imperial and expertly verbose to the point of suffocating, a stuck caps-lock key in rap-album form. (There is a very excellent song called “HUMBLE.” that could be styled only as “HUMBLE.”) It is overwhelming in its excellence in a way that can sometimes just leave you overwhelmed. It speaks loudest to me at its calmest and quietest: The small universe suggested by the simple line “My daddy commissary made it to commas” or the way Lamar purrs, “Is it unconditional when the ’Rari don’t start?” at Rihanna on “Loyalty.” (The answer is no.) It’s not that there’s no nuance here—it’s all nuance, most of it rapturous. But the most prominent narrative thread here is still OK, I give up, you’re the greatest.

Future’s tidal-wave double shot of Future and Hndrxx, which went back-to-back as Billboard no. 1 albums in February, meant to overwhelm in an entirely different way, all nuance and most character development discarded, replaced by a numbing repetition that leads to the grimmest sort of transcendence. References to his recent failed relationship with Ciara abound, though even his song literally called “Sorry” can’t seem to stay contrite for long; he sounds more vulnerable, and more compelling as a fully sketched-out personality, the deeper he reaches into his past. Here, for example, is the nicest thing Future says about a woman on either album:

She ain’t leave when I was broke
She ain’t leave when I was broke
One thing that she didn’t do
She ain’t leave when I was broke

The effect is magnified, somehow, by the fact this admission comes on Track 16 of Future, after you’ve been buried by the avalanche. That’s one way to weaponize the album format: turn it into a mesmerizing slog, a war of attrition. As for the year’s other top-billed rap full-lengths, you can revel in the totality of Migos’s Culture, or Lil Uzi Vert’s Luv Is Rage 2, or even Drake’s More Life, or you can just cherry-pick the often superb singles that drove them. None of those guys seem terribly concerned with being regarded as full-length artistes. (Well, maybe Drake, but it’s a relief not to have to think too hard about Drake for a little while.) For them, volume—and its attendant Spotify windfall—is its own reward, its own type of prestige.

No, the newest and youngest and most confounding stuff is still best consumed in bite-sized chunks, in RapCaviar binges, in mystifying SoundCloud bursts. It’s an unsettling but not unpleasant sensation to put Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang” on repeat and laugh at the line “Your mama still live in a tent” every single time, without a clear idea of who exactly you are laughing at or with. It is a way to feel young again, and also impossibly old. The 2017 full-length that best captures that sensation, nervous energy crossed with bone-deep weariness, might be Vince Staples’s Big Fish Theory. A discordant anthem like “Yeah Right” both courts old-guard rap stardom and dismisses it as an archaic death sentence, and from the album’s first moments, Staples can sketch out a full character arc in seconds, going from Young, Brash Jay-Z to Wizened, Chastened Jay-Z in a few lines, as opposed to a dozen albums:

If I’m feelin’ funny, guaranteed gon’ flash
Cock back, blast, put ’em in a bag
Prolly gon’ regret it in the retrospect
Got a lot of problems I ain’t let go yet

What’s missing from all those other records, though—the cerebral ones and the proudly thoughtless ones, the frivolous ones and the apocalyptic ones—is a solitary moment of negative space as sublime as the one on 4:44’s “The Story of O.J.”

Here’s a prime example of how the cumulative weight of a multi-decade career can prove your continued relevance, not your obsolescence:

O.J. like, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.”
[Very long pause]
… OK

The way he lets that pause hang in the air is the other candidate for Hardest Rap Line of the Year, a micro masterpiece of scathing wit. “The Story of O.J.” was 4:44’s other immediately startling moment, a pointed treatise on racism and economics wherein he invites us all to get rich by doing what rich people did, himself included. Jay chastises himself for not investing in Brooklyn real estate and congratulates himself for investing in art instead. He urges us to resist the siren songs of strip clubs and Instagram. (He also, in his zeal to transcend ugly stereotypes, repeats one about Jewish people himself, earning a rebuke from the Anti-Defamation League that prompts some defensiveness in his Times interview: “You can’t miss the context of the song,” he insists, citing the other racist images on garish display in the song’s video. “You have to be like 5 years old or something.”) He is reaching, and overreaching, and fucking up, and most of the time apologizing for fucking up, and displaying enough self-reflection to suggest he might one day apologize for the other fuckups, too.

You can argue that like Tony Soprano, Jay-Z has simply weaponized the idea of therapy, seizing on yet another set of tools with which he can tell us all exactly what we want to hear. His conversation with Baquet in the Times is full of odd platitudes, a little profound, a little clichéd. “Because until everyone's free, no one’s free, and that's just a fact.” “What you reveal, you heal.” “Without people, being rich would be very boring.” “The hardest thing is seeing pain on someone’s face that you caused, and then have to deal with yourself.” 4:44 thrives on that imperfection, that unease, that sense that he is still dealing with the pain he’s caused, and still causing it.

Jay-Z has been extremely famous for the better part of two decades now, and part of what makes this record so compelling is that we know way too much about him. He has thrilled us, and overwhelmed us, and abandoned us, and returned to us, and disappointed us, and bored us, and vaguely embarrassed us by embarrassing himself. With apologies to Future, or Vince Staples, or even Drake and Kendrick, nobody else in the 2017 field has a persona that massive and intricate and ripe for deconstructing. He is cheating, in a sense; he is leveraging the full weight of his history, and the more sordid aspects of it especially. But he makes the most of it, and he teaches superstar rappers how to evolve and age by exploding the myth that they’ll age gracefully.

Jay-Z ends 4:44 by looking both backward (“Marcy Me”) and forward (“Legacy”), and for the first time in a decade, he sounds energized looking in either direction. In some ways, he’s just like anybody and blazed a trail anybody can follow; in other, crucial ways, he’s not like anybody else at all. For all its harangues about credit and investments and generational wealth, this record is deeply flawed as a map or a blueprint. As a piece of art, however, those same flaws push it toward something approaching greatness. “I’m the person that looked at the Mona Lisa and be like, ‘Man, that’s gonna be cool in 40 years,’” Jay told the Times. “I play forever. And so my whole thing is to identify with the truth. Not to be the youngest, hottest, new, trendy thing.” He won’t be cool in 40 years—he’s not cool right now. He’s striking a different, far more conciliatory tone these days, but he’s not quite telling the whole truth, yet. But it is striking to watch him chase perfection, chase forever. And thrilling to cheer him on as he fails.

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