More than a decade removed from his intended swan song, Black Album, JAY-Z continues to chip away at the grindstone that is immortality. It’s to the point that it’s not a question of if he will be remembered as the greatest figure in rap to ever pick up a mic, but rather just how storied his legacy will ultimately be once he decides to close the curtain for good.
His last long player, Magna Carta Holy Grail, continued his track record of successful releases, scored him another platinum plaque and multiple hit singles, but received mixed reviews, with some accusing Hov of being over-the-hill and simply mailing it in at that point in his career. Notorious for his ability to read a crowd and spell out the writing on the wall, JAY-Z has been well aware of those attempting to write him off and has answered with what may be his greatest body of work of the decade. 4:44, his 13th released album, captures the transparent rapper as he puts down his guard long enough to bring us into the psyche of Shawn Carter the father, husband, and man. Running ten tracks in length, 4:44 serves as a friendly reminder that JAY-Z still wields the power to put the music world in a state of pandemonium, a feat he pulled off with the assistance of producer No I.D.
Having worked with legendary producers like DJ Premier, Timbaland, Neptunes, Swizz Beatz, Kanye West, and Just Blaze, JAY-Z’s first-ever decision to enlist No I.D. as the album’s sole boards man created high expectations for the Chicago native. However, No I.D. rose to the occasion in a big way, creating an array of soundscapes that are as rich as anything JAY-Z has rhymed over in recent memory, effectively solidifying No I.D. as one of the greatest beatsmiths of his generation. To highlight No I.D.’s musical wizardry, we’ve ranked each beat on 4:44 to determine which is the best on the album.
Where does your favorite stack up?
No I.D. samples The Fugees’ “Fu-Gee-La” on the 4:44 cut “Moonlight,” a selection inspired by the Oscar-Winning motion picture of the same name. Distorting Lauryn Hill’s vocals from the 1996 hip-hop classic, which serves as the crux of the track, No. I.D. chops up and peppers them throughout the beat, complementing the low-end bassline that anchors “Moonlight.” Although JAY-Z receives a production credit on “Moonlight,” it is among the more pedestrian offerings on 4:44 from a production standpoint, with the familiarity of the sample being more of a hindrance than an enhancement.
Many of the soundscapes on 4:44 are more subdued and provoke more insular musings from Shawn Carter, the man behind the music. However, “Bam” is the alternative, a festive jam that finds Hov reverting back to JAY-Z and talking greasy over the No I.D.-produced beat. Interpolating dancehall legend Sister Nancy’s signature record “Bam Bam,” “Bam” also includes a sample of “Tenement Yard” by Jacob Miller, as well as live instrumentation, including electric pianos, guitars, synths, and various horns, all of which add to the sonic explosion. While the song itself is one of the most boisterous offerings, “Bam” falls short when compared to the more refined compositions by No I.D. that made the final cut.
JAY-Z gets optimistic on “Smile,” a soulful number from 4:44 that samples Stevie Wonder’s 1976 cut “Love’s in Need of Love Today.” Dominated by a voice sample, which appears throughout, and 808 drums, “Smile is a relatively sparse and straightforward backdrop that displays No I.D.’s brilliance as a boards man on what is the longest song on Hov’s album.
7. “Kill Jay Z”
The Alan Parsons Project’s “Don’t Let It Show” gets flipped on the opening salvo on 4:44, and sets the tempo for the rest of the album. Classical pianos, digitized drums, and strings are all present here, as No I.D. crafts an expansive instrumental that adds to the lengthy list of legendary opening backdrops that JAY-Z albums are known for.
JAY-Z co-produces and closes out 4:44 with “Legacy,” which captures the mogul’s thoughts on generational wealth and the lineage he sees for his offspring. Producer No I.D. mines Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” for key wrinkles to tinker with, resulting in a stoic number that bookends the album and ties together Hov’s message of financial liberation within the black community. Jimmy Douglass, who mixed 4:44 in its entirety, also recorded “Someday We’ll All Be Free” in 1971, making his involvement in the making of the record even more historic.
5. “Family Feud”
Featuring a sample of The Clark Sisters’ live performance “Ha Ya (Eternal Life),” “Family Feud” serves as a lively number produced by JAY-Z & No I.D. and powered by piano keys, drums loops, and vocal contributions from his wife, Beyonce. The sonic equivalent to the sounds of heaven’s gates opening, “Family Feud” is a glorious soundscape from 4:44 and among the stronger batch of records on the album.
4. “Marcy Me”
JAY-Z reminisces on his genesis in the Marcy Housing Projects and the current landscape of Brooklyn on the 4:44 cut “Marcy Me,” which subtly pays homage to Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Me.” Sampling “Todo O Mundo e Ninguém” by Quarteto 1111, “Marcy Me” also includes live instrumentation on the part of Nate Mercereau & Steve Wyreman, who employ piano keys, organs, synths and strings to boost the ambiance of the record. On an album loaded with incredible music, “Marcy Me” is a premier composition.
3. “Caught Their Eyes”
No I.D. comes with some of his finest productions in recent memory on 4:44, one being “Caught Their Eyes,” a funky instrumental built around a vocal sample of Nina Simone’s “Baltimore.” Rollicking guitars and steady percussion, wrapped around synths fit for a blaxploitation flick, are a few of the parts that make up the sum of “Caught Their Eyes,” a masterful sound bed sure to get beat-junkies salivating.
2. “The Story of OJ”
Keys from an electric piano greets listeners on “The Story of O.J.,” one of the more impressive works on 4:44, and one that displays No I.D.’s skills at their zenith. A vocal sample from Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” which was handpicked by JAY-Z himself, is lifted and littered throughout various sections of the track, complementing the live instrumentation by Steve Wyreman, who does work with a bass, guitar, celesta, and synthesizer. Heavy in terms of its subject matter, the lyrics on “The Story of O.J.” may get most of the attention, but No I.D.’s sonic contribution is also to be marveled at, as he cooks up what is arguably the album’s finest soundscape with this tune.
His most ambitious effort in nearly a decade, the most epic moment on JAY-Z’s 4:44 happens to the album’s title-track, on which he is at his most revealing and vulnerable, two traits Hov loyalists and critics alike swoon over when it comes to the god emcee. However, the testimonial would not have been possible without producer No I.D. drawing it out of him with a track that forced Shawn Carter to come clean. Sampling Hannah Williams’ Late Nights and Heartbreak, No I.D. reworks the original, a song concerning infidelity, allowing JAY-Z to come to terms with his own, and spill his innermost thoughts and secrets over the epic collage of sound. No I.D.’s role as Maestro on 4:44 has been lauded in the wake of 4:44’s release and this offering is the peak of his excellence, making it the best production on one of the best albums of the year. Hands down.