Is there any living rapper with a more successful and storied career than Jay-Z? Any rapper who has built so large an empire and yet remained, unlike a Dr Dre, musically relevant even to this day? I can’t think of one if there is – the man known as Shawn Carter has been one of the biggest names in music for close to thirty years, and 4:44 is the introspective late-career rap album that draws a line under all those achievements.
It’s a humble, often low key and very personal album, in which Jay addresses the infidelity rumours surrounding his marriage, reflects on his business acumen, and muses on fatherhood. His rapping is mellow and revealing, sometimes bordering on spoken word as he pulls back the curtain on his hustler persona.
Hova makes a couple of appearances – on the braggadocious reggae bounce of ‘Bam’ and the nostalgic ‘Marcy Me’. But by and large this is a Shawn Carter album – conversational, real, and apologetic. On the album’s title track, over a soulful beat, he speaks directly to his wife: ‘I apologise, often womanise / Took for my child to be born to see through a woman’s eyes’.
That frankness can be found in nearly every song on 4:44. Opener ‘Kill Jay-Z’ finds him addressing the critics and listeners who condemned his infidelity, and wrote off his music career: ‘How can we know if we can trust Jay-Z?’ He takes all the criticism in stride, and makes no attempt to defend himself, just resolves to correct as many mistakes as he can: ‘You gotta do better, boy you owe it to Blue’.
In ‘The Story of OJ’ he takes on the history of racism over a jazz-bar piano slide. In ‘Smile’ he raps about coming to terms with and loving yourself, revealing his mother’s struggles coming out as a lesbian. And in closer ‘Legacy’, which features a voice recording of his five-year old daughter, he muses on how the money he has made will affect his children’s lives.
It’s unexpected stuff from the rap game’s most exuberant hustler, and a far cry from ‘Big Pimpin’ or Reasonable Doubt. But it’s brilliant, and it makes for one of his best albums yet in combination with the fantastic production work by No I.D, who handled every single track. These ten songs are soulful, spacious, and feature some excellent sample work to boot.
It’s often said that hip-hop is a young man’s game, but 4:44 provides a blueprint for longevity. Unlike Hov’s last Blueprint, this one strips away all the persona and egotism, leaving behind nothing but passion, emotion and vulnerability. These qualities are a rare find in hip-hop, but it is them that set 4:44 apart as one of the best albums of 2017.