By just about every measure, 47-year-old Shawn Carter’s past decade has been victorious: He’s evolved from a performer and upstart entrepreneur into a legitimate business mogul, befriended presidents, and just recently welcomed his second and third children with a wife whose accomplishments have come to match if not surpass his own. But Jay-Z, his once impervious musical alter-ego, increasingly seemed to lag a few steps behind. Obsessed with his own legacy but unwilling to really examine what that legacy meant; politically inclined but rarely politically coherent; and growing further out of sync with a rapidly changing hip-hop market, Jay appeared to have exhausted his bag of tricks years ago.
So perhaps the biggest surprise to be found on “4:44,” his new album released early Friday on Tidal, is that it seems Jay-Z had gotten just as tired of Jay-Z’s crap as anyone else. Abandoning his trend-hopping tendencies, delving into matters of race and politics with newfound clarity, and turning a pitiless eye on his own failures rather than simply rehashing his accomplishments, Jay’s 13th solo set is less a return to form than a striking reinvention, and perhaps the most mature album yet released by a member of hip-hop’s Mt. Rushmore. By puncturing his own jealously guarded myth, he’s finally found a way to move forward — he had to kill Jay-Z in order to save him.
The album’s targets range from the deserving (Bill Cosby) to the left-field (Eric Benet) to the sure-to-be-Twitter-fodder-for-weeks (Kanye West). But Jay pins the biggest bullseye on his own back. On the self-lacerating opener “Kill Jay-Z,” he wastes no time dredging up three of the ugliest incidents from his own biography: Shooting his older brother in the shoulder at age 12, stabbing Lance “Un” Rivera in a nightclub in 1999, and the alleged infidelities that set gossipers aflame when his wife Beyonce alluded to them on last year’s “Lemonade.” Of those first two incidents, Jay was scarcely even forthcoming in his own memoir. Here, he lays it all on the line with arresting candor: “Crazy how life works/ You got a knot in your chest? Imagine how a knife hurts,” he raps of the Un attack. The man who once pleaded guilty to a third-degree assault charge and then immediately turned “not guilty!” into a Top 10 chorus is nowhere to be found here.
Of course, for all his exasperating bluster, Jay has always made room for moments of genuine introspection — the ghoulish self-reckoning of “D’Evils,” the bitter sarcasm of “You Must Love Me” — but never has he allowed himself to stand so nakedly unguarded. Sure to attract the most media interest here is the title track, where Jay offers confession after confession to his spurned spouse, sounding genuinely broken. Repeating “I apologize” seven times and sometimes abandoning rhyme entirely, his voice flattens into a low murmur as he takes stock of his own faithlessness and latent misogyny. On the knife-twisting final verse, he ponders someday having to explain his betrayals to his daughter: “My heart breaks for the day I have to explain my mistakes/ And the mask goes away and Santa Claus is fake.”
As much as the album serves as a long mea culpa, Jay is frequently able to make the personal political. Unlike Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.,” he refrains from referencing President Trump directly, but the album is suffused with a sense of sudden sobriety: Whereas 2011’s “Watch the Throne” was Jay’s sometimes shallow attempt to equate his own material success with the optimism of the Obama era, “4:44” tries to audit where it all went wrong. On “Smile,” he warmly discusses his mother’s long-secret homosexuality — “Had to hide in the closet, so she medicate/ Society’s shame and the pain was too much to take” — and leaves her to read a lovely bit of verse on the outro. “Family Feud” offers a plea to patronize black businesses, and “Story of O.J.” is an intriguingly nuanced combination of post-Reconstruction history lesson and fiscal responsibility seminar. “You know what’s more important than throwing money in the strip club? Credit.” Jay knows he sounds like your dad here, but he seems fine with that. Besides, your dad was right.
And yet “4:44” also sees Jay at his funniest. He’s still too self-mythologizing to let an album pass without mentioning he “did it all without a pen,” but he’s self-aware enough to add, “y’all knew that was coming? Had to remind you again.” “Moonlight” provides the “La La Land” diss that hip-hop never knew it was missing. “Y’all flirting with death, I be winking through the scope” is a half-smirked Jay-Z threat of classic vintage. And “glorified seat filler/ Stop walking ‘round like you made ‘Thriller’” functions as a great battle rhyme made all the better for having no explicit target.
Clocking in at a brisk 36 minutes — and limited to the “Illmatic”-minted 10 tracks — “4:44” was produced entirely by Chicago studio wizard No I.D. (recently named an EVP at Capitol Music Group), who brings a sonic and thematic consistency to the album unseen since Jay’s earliest work with a young Kanye. Frank Ocean, Damian Marley, and an uncredited Beyonce are given enough room to distinguish themselves, but superfluous cameos are as scarce as bandwagoning beats. There’s little here that sounds like it’ll be heard booming out of clubs a year from now, though the coffee shop-quiet storm aura exerts an undeniable pull. Sometimes the samples tell their own story: On “O.J.,” I.D. chops Nina Simone’s “Four Women” into a kaleidoscope of pitch-shifted fragments that convey just as much meaning as Jay’s lyrics.
Perhaps most importantly, Jay raps like a man once again comfortable in his own skin. Whereas his dismal last efforts “The Blueprint 3” and “Magna Carta: Holy Grail” saw the rapper weighted down and prematurely aged by flop-sweat attempts to subsume hip-hop’s newer flows and styles, here he floats above the fray with a liberated lightness, his slightly messy lines spilling freely past the margins. He’ll likely never regain the chip-shouldered sharpness of the twenty-something who tossed off rhymes like “You’re never ready, forever petty minds stay petty/ Mine’s thinking longevity till I’m 70 livin’ heavenly” as though they were Mother Goose, but his looser, scrappier late-period style has eased into a comfortable groove.
“You got a daughter, gotta get softer,” he tells himself as the album opens, and for him, softness might just be the final frontier. There’s still no real gold-standard model for chasing relevance as a middle-aged rapper, but by finally opting out of the race, Jay-Z could well have drawn up a new blueprint.