2017 is a year that seems to be revealing artists broadening ambitions and exposure through lyrical expressions that articulate elements of self-discovery in a world that is only getting more complex. This couldn’t be more truthful with the release of JAY-Z’s new album 4:44 which speaks both of Jay’s own self reflectivity alongside the unglamorous lessons that he has learned throughout his life.
Jay Z has been tactical about his rollout of the album, first making it a Tidal exclusive and then releasing a series of powerful videos to accompany the songs on the album. The latest video is for the song ‘MaNyfaCedGod’ featuring singer James Blake, a bonus track off the album.
The powerful video features ’12 Years A Slave’ actress Lupita Nyong’o who delivers a smashing performance along the dark and minimal backdrop of the video. Having released the video for ‘Moonlight’ recently, which is essentially an African American parody of the sitcom ‘Friends’ – the video features former YouTube star and now HBO actress Issa Rae. Jay looks like he’s seriously branching into film production having signed a two-year deal in 2016 with The Weinstein company to make a film about Trayvon Martin.
4:44 – A Sacred Number
There are many people who believe that rap is an art form that contains no substance due to the oversaturated themes such as drugs, sex, love and fame – thus making most rap albums escapist fantasies provided for house parties and clubs.
4:44 takes a different approach.
Jay-Z once expressed that he thought that over time rap has had a larger impact on racial relations than most cultural icons due to the fact that it influenced both “kids from urban areas” and people from around the world. Music itself gets its power both through the messages conveyed and the way it makes people feel, thus in some ways creating paths of understanding. Obviously like many other genres of music, rap will have its ups and downs alongside its artists, and this is exactly what is shown within 4:44 as Jay-Z puts his own life into the album to discuss his own fault’s and failures, perhaps putting them to rest.
When breaking down the title “4:44” it is very difficult to ignore the connections it has to Jay’s personal life. The title comes from Jay’s belief that four is his spiritual number alongside some coincidences that were implied through its inclusion as a title. Both Beyoncé and Jay’s birthday’s fall on a fourth, their wedding day is on a fourth, they have the roman numeral ‘IV’ (four) tattooed on their hands, and Blue’s name resembles that roman numeral. This further cements the personal nature of the album for Jay both in relation to himself as well has his family. The album was born from two decades of hard work and from the experience gained through Jay’s time under the spotlight a fame through that time.
Jay had admitted in some part that for him, greatness cannot be achieved unless a person is able to admit to their own weaknesses, and this is expressed perfectly throughout his album 4:44. This can be easily interpreted through his opening track “KILL JAY-Z” his death, and admittance of everything he has done wrong and as this continues on it seems to serve as a rebirth of himself as the person he wants to become, ending on the final track “LEGACY”. The track “SMILE” seems focused on the secrets he has kept while the track “4:44” discusses his response to infidelity, thus it makes sense that the last track “LEGACY” would discuss his future.
‘I’m not black, I’m O.J.’
“The Story of O.J.” is quite different from his other tracks. The use of cartoon illustrations for the official video has the blunt message repeated in the chorus. O.J. Simpson was beloved by white American’s during the seventies, although he was notable for his disassociation from black figures and the civil right movement. Jay’s inclusion of ‘I’m not black, I’m O.J.’ comes from O.J. refusal to protest the social inequalities at the time and the fact that he was inevitably dragged back into the stereotype of ‘the black man’ after he became the focus of that same racial debate while under suspicion for a murder case, highlighting how not even superstar status can avoid the racial tensions of America. Moreover, Jay’s commentary on black community, family and investment is punctuated throughout the track through examples of his own financial decisions. One such example can be seen when he states ‘I bought some artwork for one million, two years later that shit worth two million…I can’t wait to give this shit to my children.”
Overall, the majority of the songs on this album heavily rely on the message being passed forward as the lyrics are powerful, metaphorical and unglamorously poetic, resulting in them being memorable while bringing to mind the deeply thought-out rap music of the nineties and early two-thousands. The subject matter though covered by other artist is saturated with Jay’s unique self-expression, thus we hold the opinion that this album will hold for a long time due to both its artistic uniqueness and due to point it represents for an artist such as JAY-Z.