JAY-Z has accomplished about almost all that can be accomplished in one’s career and being widely recognized as the greatest emcee of all-time, not much more can be done by the emcee that he hasn’t already done. So when the Brooklyn-bred emcee decided to drop his 13th solo album, 4:44, back in June, it was not only a surprise that he would drop his first album in 4 years, but easily his most personal and emotional album of his career. Which is one of the few things the emcee, philanthropist and entrepreneur hasn’t done in his career up till this point.
Delivering by far one of the most mature albums in not only his own storied career, but Hip-Hop history, it’s quite ironic that this is JAY’s best solo work since his last classic album, American Gangster, which celebrated it’s 10 year anniversary earlier this year. That album boosting the gangster lifestyle, the emcee has quite ironically enough very much shy away and move very past on this album. Displaying a vulnerability, grace and grown-up wisdom throughout, that before now we had never seen from one of Hip-Hop’s most eldest statesman other than Nas, JAY touches on everything from his own personal life to racism, vulnerability, feminism and building up the black community, in a way not many other emcees could. Using and confronting his own failings and how it effects not only his own legacy, but that of America, it has the veteran emcee rapping some of the most diamond-sharp lyrics he has been in quite some time.
Veteran and legendary Hip-Hop producer, No I.D. of Chicago, who was a mentor of Kanye West soulful and jazzy production on every track throughout the album really helping bring out that stunning and raw honesty from the 47-year-old emcee, who bares his soul in a way we had never really seen till now. Starting with the albums very astonishing and genuinely staggering, opening track, Kill Jay Z. Where with the self-assassination of his ego, he lays all his inner demons on the line in a way that demands higher standards from not only himself, but Hip-Hop culture in general and with him leading the charge. On the very potent, The Story of O.J., JAY touches on the underlying racism that still exists in many parts of America today, even despite us being long past slavery. Arguably one of the best storytelling tracks of his whole career, there is plenty of notable lines throughout, which really catch the listeners ear and make you think twice about certain things you yourself may do. This line in particular on the fifth annotation of the first verse really catching mine, “Wish I could take it back to the beginnin’. I coulda bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo. For like 2 million. The same building today is worth 25 million. Guess how I’m feelin’? Dumbo.”
On Smile, the longest track on the album, JAY shows how at each turn of his life he has tried to turn his pain into triumph and change his future for the better, while also revealing his mother’s late life revelation of homosexuality publicly for the first time. With his mother, Gloria Carter, being one of the few features on the album, as she recites a poem at the end of the record. While the very vulnerable title track is a very contrite and brush outburst apology in which the emcee discusses at length his marital bliss in a very brutally honest, emotional and honest way like he has never before. At its core, it’s him giving his most honestly, emotional and powerful song that he quite possibly ever has written of his career. The fraught and powerful emotion, as well as disloyalty he admits to throughout the track, really hitting home on the very first line where he raps, “I apologize. Often womanized. Took for my child to be born to see through a woman’s eyes. Took for these natural twins to believe in miracles. Took me to long for this song. I don’t deserve you.” That honesty and power in the song, which soul singer Kim Burrell brings out even more through her textured wail and jolt of energy she brings, which make it right that it’s the title track and the outlying theme of a very important core of the whole album. That perfectly segues into another very soulfully powerful record, Family Feud. Where JAY raps about the separation within Hip-Hop culture from the old generation to the new generation, as well as tensions in the black community, both at home and in the community. By far one of the best records on the whole album, it’s quite brilliant how No I.D. flips a vocal sample from the legendary gospel group, The Clark Sisters, classic, Hey Ya (Eternal Life), in a way in which Beyoncé is able to interlope her vocals with the sample in real time. On the track the BK native is also calling for all of Hip-Hop rappers and fans to put their differences aside to come together for the good of the culture. This being very noticeable on part of the end of the first verse, where JAY raps, “Nobody wins when the family feuds. But my stash can’t fit into Steve Harvey’s suit. I’m clear why I’m here, how about you?” Which is also a play on Harvey being the host of the show of the same name.
The latter part of the album with tracks like Marcy Me, Legacy and Adnis, find JAY giving his most significant gems too. Legacy being a very upbeat track in which he raps about the Carter family legacy all the way from his sisters down to his nephews, his own daughter, Blue Ivy, his mother and his own grandfather, Adnis Reeves Sr. While also reaffirming how to build black generational wealth. Which really started with him and he affirms with the lines, “Generational wealth, that’s the key. My parents ain’t have shit, so that shift started with me.” There’s plenty of other gems dropped throughout the rest of the whole album and probably the most in this particular track. Marcy Me, meanwhile, being his ode to the Marcy Projects of Brooklyn he grew up and how it shaped him to be what he’s today. On Adnis, an open-letter to his late father, JAY raps about how he used the life experiences he thought would hinder him as life lessons to be learned from. Something he does a lot throughout the album, he sees as a present/gift to him too. Really hitting home on the final verse, where he raps, “Who would’ve thought I’d be the Dad I never had. Be the husband I’ve become, usually nothing comes from that. I forgive you as I live through the beautiful present of the past. I’m just thankful that I get all these gifts to unwrap.” Which perfectly segues into Blue’s Freestyle/We Family. Continuing the family first theme throughout the album, JAY, for the first time showcases his daughter Blue Ivy’s rapping skills. While also showing the importance of family that’s close to you and it’s ancestral roots that make him and his family who they’re.
What the great JAY-Z shows on this album by giving us his most personal album of his career, is that by opening up about his own suffering and forgiveness, and showing his very human flaws as an example to others, is that by being raw, honest and true to yourself, no matter how much you may suffer or have to redeem yourself from it, usually always leads to an artists best work. By embracing his own vulnerability and bravely admitting to his mistakes, he shows how much higher of heights he can reach, while also given a genuine wisdom to others they otherwise might not know.