After weeks of trying to decipher the meaning behind the peach posters with four characters stamped in a large black typeface, 06.30.17 finally arrived with the musical gift of JAY-Z's 13th studio album, <em>4:44</em>. Once the clock struck midnight, all of the anticipation seeped out of headphones and speakers and into the eager ears of Hov fans. But what came to light was not at all what was expected from the rapper turned entrepreneur turned family man.
After closely listening to Mr. Carter's lyrical content and 10-track project of honesty, five VIBE editors and writers share their thoughts on the sonically rich No I.D.-produced project that many hip-hop fans have been vibing to since its release. Dig in down below.
Desire Thompson, Associate News Editor
JAY-Z’s career has lasted as long as the existence of millennials. In that lengthy time frame, the Brooklyn native has endured family hardships and a rap career highlighting his escape from poverty through the drug game. His tales have allowed him to carve a persona that became the standard in hip hop. Four years after Magna Carta Holy Grail, Mr. Carter has laid out his demons on 4:44, a diary of tingling proportions that reminds never to idolize your heroes. A vulnerable and at times, a broken JAY is heard on wax taking accountability for his actions thought to be genius by his former self.
With No I.D. as his proverbial outlet for the rap feels, Shawn Carter steps up to the plate to question the man so many embody (Drake, J.Cole, Meek Mill) and breaks him into pieces. From “Kill Jay Z” to “Family Feud,” the rapper confesses to being the villain in his biggest scandals (Solange, Lance “Un” Rivera) while in an odd way, finding sympathetic refuge from fans. He also expresses need to think ahead, preferably when it comes to his criticized art collection on “The Story of O.J.” One “Legacy,” his wealth becomes another episode in the 13th season finale of his life, providing him financial freedom.
No longer the “guy you can lie to,” JAY’s 10-track opus hits every cerebral chamber. “Smile” is for the soul (along with his mother’s touching spoken-word outro) while “Bam” feeds the ego. “4:44” leaves us debating the ages of male maturity and “Family Feud” gives the Instagram generation lyrics and “super facts” to praise (or criticize). His apologies are for his wife Beyonce and his children, who will bear the burden of learning about their father from two perspectives–his POV and the Internet’s.
Looking ahead has always been JAY’s strongest superpower– which is why he goes back to heal wounds that could continue to dampen his future. With strong samples from Nina Simone, Sister Nancy, The Fugees, Raekwon and a mix of raw and off the cuff beats, JAY finds solace while watching the rap game from the VIP section. It’s the battle between his past and the future that will always haunt him, as he notes on “Marcy Me.” “When Denzel was blottin’ carpet, I’ll pack a nine millimeter when Slick Rick made Mona Lisa,” he recalls. “When Lisa Bonet was Beyoncé of her day, I had divas y’all/ Think I just popped up in this b**ch like a fetus? Nah.”
There are hints that this could be the rapper’s final album when listening to the HOV-centered “Bam,” but at least he’s confessed to truths through music’s most machismo genre. Whether you forgive JAY-Z is your call. In the end, JAY, one of the greatest rappers of our time, has forgiven himself.
Mark Braboy, Contributing Writer
For a very, very long time, JAY-Z has been wearing a diamond-studded, yet very tightly worn mask. That mask has hidden the vulnerability, honesty, and the layered humility of the man named Shawn Carter. And while that mask has slowly been shed since at least The Blueprint, his “face” has finally been unveiled in the form of 4:44. Hov has given us a body of work where he is unflinchingly poignant and all the way real about not just his personal life and transgressions, but also what it means to be a revolutionary black entrepreneur in the music business while still standing on the side of the oppressed, and still being the God emcee (because…”Bam”).
Liberation screams throughout the entire album in multiple facets whether we our liberating ourselves from our sins of dishonesty and infidelity (“4:44”), the false ideas of what it means to be black and elite (“The Story of O.J”), or breaking free of societal boxes while celebrating and living in one’s truth (“Smile”). Thanks to the scoring done by Chi-Town’s own No I.D., 4:44 turned out to be a balanced, sophisticated and well-put together package. He shows his growth without being obnoxiously pretentious with his riches like the in Kingdom Come and some parts of Magna Carta Holy Grail. Sure, he flexes (because what’s a Jay album without a little bit of that) but it feels more constructive than some of his last efforts.
This album will forever stand the test of time among both Hov’s greatest masterpieces and hip-hop’s most legendary albums for two sole reasons. One, this album marks the complete evolution of JAY-Z from a musical and personal standpoint. He lyrically outclasses himself throughout the album and challenges himself by adding far more emotional depth than he’s ever done. And two, the musical chemistry between Jay and No I.D. is surreal. It’s the kind that can be seen nowadays among the pairings of Metro Boomin and Gucci Mane or MikeWillMadeIt and Rae Sremmurd. Together, the two have put together a masterpiece that will grow with us like fine wine. With a treasure trove of knowledge and confessions, the Michael Corleone of rap has permanently marked his place in music industry history. Hip-Hop needed this album and after processing this album multiple times, I’m calling it what is. A classic.
Marjua Estevez, Senior Editor
As someone who's been both a victim and culprit of infidelity, I imagine there were levels of difficulties that JAY-Z encountered while recording his long-awaited "Lemonade response." However, I'd be remiss without saying I find some of his most honest one-liners problematic. Words like "I apologize, often womanize/ took for my child to be born to see through a woman's eyes" reeks of what stems from toxic masculinity and, thusly, what we know as patriarchy. Why wasn't Beyoncé enough? Where is the intuitiveness to see women as human, with or without a child? Still, I honor JAY's honesty and readiness to own all of his truths—provided these are really his truths and not just poetic license or material.
I dig this JAY-Z far more than the human he's been in previous eras. I'm not as great at separating the man from the artist as most, however great a prodigy Shawn Carter is in hip-hop culture. But I again would be remiss if I did not sing some of his praises for the 10-track opus he calls 4:44. I appreciate him turning a lens on topics like slavery, colorism, black entrepreneurship, investment, pro-blackness and the idea of financial freedom while paying it forward. There's a sense of privilege, yes, but the jewel for me was him planting that seed that will, in turn, create dialogue around those ideas with his core audience, which spans generations of black and brown communities.
I mostly appreciate JAY's vulnerability, what I interpreted as a softness pouring from his chest in honor of the woman he nearly broke. I don't like to give cookies for things I think should just be, but I do know what it's like to "suck at love." In the story of Mr. and Mrs. Carter, two people chose to return to the groove. That dance that takes years to perfect. And that's what I'm applauding above anything else.
Tony Centeno, Contributing Writer
As soon as he said "Cry Jay Z” on “Kill Jay Z,” I took that moment of foreshadowing as a warning that his 13th studio album would be more emotional and transparent than anything he's ever made. As a longtime fan of the Brooklyn phenom, I’ve worn out all three Blueprints, his “final LP” The Black Album and, of course, his debut album Reasonable Doubt. Yet, 4:44 is not just an album I can play without skipping a beat. It stands as the only album from his extensive catalog that I’ll continue to learn from for years to come.
4:44 exposes the underlying emotions people possess and, like most alpha men, tend to forget. JAY exposes his issues with Prince's legal team in "Caught Their Eyes," yet flashes a big "Smile" as he embraces his mother’s sexual orientation. He shines a bright, golden light on black excellence on "Legacy," and deals with the struggles of racism in America in "The Story of O.J." After flexing his stance on rising social injustice and LGBT rights in America, Hov starts a brand new therapy session in the title track "4:44." You can hear the tremble in his voice as he begs for Bey's forgiveness as he admits his faults in the most honest bars he ever spits.
When he's not baring his soul to the world, Hov offers life advice to the young generation who hold stacks of money up to their ear for the 'Gram. He emphasizes that credit is more important than throwing stacks of cash in the air. He reassures stubborn men everywhere that therapy might not cure all of our mental struggles, but it will help alleviate the constant pain and anguish. The best part about the album is that, after the smoke clears from his lyrical bombs, JAY survives it all. I know some might not agree, but I'll go out on a limb and call this masterpiece his magnum opus.
Richy Rosario, Contributing Writer
Human evolution requires digging deep into a dangerous introspection we often tend to avoid. It takes finding and using that courage inside the strength we didn’t know we had to help us arrive at that place of transparent vulnerability; inevitably collides with the truth we often hide beneath our cleverly pre-meditative constructed faux realities. In his new project, 4:44, we find the 47-year-old JAY-Z in this cathartic and honest destination. The 10-track offering presents Shawn Carter as a mature man who’s ready to right his wrongs. He lays his cards all out on the table and seeks redemption. “Cry Jay Z, we know the pain is real/But you can't heal what you never reveal,” he ponders on the album’s opening, “Kill Jay Z.”
Amid, his travels he still seemingly calls out those who have wronged him, too. In that same track he calls out Kanye West for his infamous 2016 rant in a California concert. The most telling song on the album is “Family Feud” featuring Beyoncé. On Lemonade, she hints of a “Becky with the good hair,” and (seemingly) accuses her husband of an affair with her. That same antagonist comes up on JAY’s side of the story, too. “Yeah, I'll f**k up a good thing if you let me/Let me alone, Becky,” he raps, but he finally comes clean on “4:44” blatantly admitting all his mistakes. He also chooses to free his lesbian mother out the closet on “Smile.”
Sonically, the album is tastefully saturated with great lines and beats, thanks in part to producer No I.D. And while he lays all his shortcomings on wax, he still makes sure to remind you of why you fell in love with him in the first place. “Got the heart of a giant, don't you ever forget/Don't you never forget, Jigga got this shit poppin'/I pulled out the pot when we was outta options,” he declares on “Bam.” After all, the greatest men of all time have made mistakes and JAY Z is seen as no exception.
Ashley Pickens, Contributing Writer
Shawn Carter knocks down doors, stomping onto the viaduct of his life, with his marriage and family just eye’s view below, meeting JAY-Z on the other end with a death threat. The warning signal that woke the man that harbors the beast and the martyr? The fear of losing his family. That’s 4:44 - the Life And Times of Shawn Carter vs JAY-Z, a crusade to find the existence in the middle of the man and his sobriquet. The title track, “4:44” is the “crux” of the album rests in the middle of the overpass, while his “Legacy” awaits below.
When you lay the “A-side” and “B-side” parallel to each other, there’s a battered tale of the fight it took to awaken the arrival of the man in the middle. Carter explores the treacherous fear of becoming Eric Benet and tries on a suit of vulnerability - in exchange for his armor - as he struggles to accept his exaltation from his days of alibis. While the flip side - the B side, (“Family Feud,” “Bam,” “Moonlight,” and “Marcy Me”) are more of the entertainer we’re familiar with as he braggadociously parades his “cute” billionaire status while he and Bey are “merrily, merrily eating off these streams.”
On the final battle of “Caught Their Eyes” and “Marcy Me,” he taps into Hova, providing for a keener vision to his surroundings. From this, Young Guru gathered and melded the "ideas and truths" that No I.D. hacked away at as his therapist, while everyone followed the Mrs. Carter-approved blueprint. Awakened at 4:44 am was the man in the middle of JAY-Z and Shawn Carter, born and ready to protect his “Legacy” (his children, his Bonnie and Clyde love story, and an empire he can pass down to his children).