Often, the opening track of a modern Hip Hop album gives one a decent idea not of the style, but rather gives the artist a chance to set his platform.
On DAMN , Kendrick opened with a story of emotional struggle with a flavour of police brutality – conscious themes that were then carried through the album. In 4:44 , the aptly named track Kill Jay-Z does the same thing – rather than leading into a classic Hov playlist of ‘pure’ Hip Hop, it sets the listener up for an album full of profoundness and emotional revelations. In his own words, “it’s really about the ego. It’s about killing off the ego, so we can have this conversation in a place of vulnerability and honesty.”
Though the ten songs focus on ten different aspects, they all revolve around Jay-Z’s personal life – his relationship with Beyonce, his family, his impact on society. However, in what is likely to be one of his last albums, we are also reminded of the legacy he hopes to leave. This album is focused on Jay-Z, and Jay-Z only. There are a few shots at other rappers and music industry players including Prince's estate, and the features always enhance the rapping rather than overwhelm it. As cliché as it sounds, this was an album from the heart – a mature, almost necessary project from the veteran artist.
That’s not to say the album sacrifices style for substance – rather, throughout, we see a substantial variety of flows and delivery. Contrary to many opinions that followed the release of 4:44 , this is not a response to, or in itself, Jay Z’s Lemonade . Hov perfectly sums up the album during an interview for iHeart Radio, when he says “‘4:44’ is a song that I wrote, and it’s the crux of the album, just right in the middle of the album. And I woke up, literally, at 4:44 in the morning, 4:44 AM, to write this song. So it became the title of the album and everything. It’s the title track because it’s such a powerful song, and I just believe one of the best songs I’ve ever written.” . The brutal honesty in every line of 4:44 - indeed, both the song and the album – interweave beautifully between the world class production. Frankly, this album seems to put the notion of mutual exclusivity between lyrics and production to bed.
While Jay-Z is, of course, the star of this album, his features are well chosen. There are few in number, but all are fairly memorable for different reasons. Frank Ocean and Stevie Wonder have much the same effect on “Smile” and “Caught Their Eyes” – two emotionally heavy tracks which require vocal relief. Meanwhile, Hov describes “Bam” as “jammin’ with Damian Marley – and perhaps, rather late into the chronology of the album, the listener is reminded of Jay’s classic style.
While the album is rather focused on self, elements of Jay Z’s wider political beliefs shine through ostentatiously. Having fought for black rights all his career, the struggle (and progress) are once again paid homage to. Racial liberation, once again, sticks out as an indication of Hov’s unapologetic agenda of equal rights. 4:44 goes even further, as Jay-Z empowers the women in his life – whether it be giving his mother a platform to reveal her truth as a lesbian woman in Smile , or directly yet intimately addressing his wife on 4:44 .
The standout track on the album is The Story of OJ. We invite you to take a look at the video below:
Recovered yet? While externally about the infamous case of OJ Simpson, it touches upon the socio-financial dynamics affecting African Americans, and in a wider case, institutional oppression – the case of OJ Simpson represented the ongoing tension between LAPD and the black community. Opening with a sample from “Four Women” by Nina Simone, which cannot be overlooked as she was a woman who did a lot for civil rights and had to deal with more than a fair share of racism in her time in the limelight in the 60s, Jay Z continues the idea of race being an inherent factor in oppression – no matter the shade, no matter the class or status. If you’re black, no matter how rich you are, expect to be treated that way in America.
'Light n*gga, dark n*gga, faux n*gga, real n*gga Rich n*gga, poor n*gga, house n*gga, field n*gga Still n*gga, still n*gga '
While credit must go to legendary producer, No I.D, for providing classic beats that surely rival the modern day trappier sounds of Metro Boomin’, Jay-Z delivers perhaps his most sophisticated project yet by masterfully combining profound content with immaculate flow asserting his position as one of the most timeless figures in Hip Hop.
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