Enter 2017. We start hearing rumblings from multiple outlets that Jay is back in the lab cooking up another project. Those same levels of hope reach fever pitch all over again the same way they did with Magna Carta Holy Grail, Watch the Throne, The Blueprint 3, American Gangster, and Kingdom Come (all of which were let-downs in some way). To add fuel to the hype train, it was also revealed that the legendary No I.D. would be handling production on the entire album. It's at this point that my ears perk up. I think back to all of the classic Common projects No I.D. has contributed to and how dope it would be if we finally got an album in that same vein from HOV. For the most part, it's safe to say that JAY-Z has delivered on his thirteenth studio album 4:44.
"Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense (but I did five mil) I ain't been rhymin like Common since."
Judging from this line on "Moment of Clarity" off The Black Album, it's clear that HOV wished he were able to create conscious music throughout his career, but the sheer strength of his hustler spirit and propensity to make all the money in the world simply hasn't allowed him to go that route until now. One thing that is immediately evident when listening to 4:44 is that the basic skeletal beats are almost jarring on the first listen. If you made the mistake like I did of thinking this album would somehow be on the level of No I.D.'s most iconic work, you might be a bit disappointed early on. It took me awhile to adjust my ear to exactly the type of music I was listening to. This isn't a casual album to cruise around to in the whip, nor does it have anything truly worthy of being played in any club. It is so far from your typical JAY-Z fare that people expecting at least a few radio bangers are going to be sorely disappointed, as the only track that even comes close is "Bam" featuring Damian Marley. 4:44 is more of a teaching piece, and deserves your undivided attention, as HOV is constantly dropping gems verse after verse.
Going into the album we have "Kill Jay-Z," a powerful re-introduction to HOV where he goes into destroy-and-rebuild mode in order to re-focus on what's really important in life; family. He offers a mild apology to his wife, while possibly cementing the rift between he and his protege Kanye West. He also reflects on the possibility of what could have happened to his life and his family had he continued down this "IDGAF cuz I'm HOV" route:
"Nigga never go Eric Benet. I don't even know what you would have done, in the Future other niggaz playin football with your son."
This song is important because while fans have been exposed to several aspects of HOV's professional side, we've never been given a window into the life and times of Shawn Carter on an intimate and introspective level. From there we have "The Story of O.J." which basically sheds light on prominent black celebrities who have essentially denied their blackness at the height of their success, but try to come crawling back to the culture after they've faced a certain level of adversity. Another topic this song addresses is how to acquire generational wealth, but also serves as a warning to remember where you came from no matter how much you achieve. These first two tracks almost tie into one another because essentially it shows a forward-thinking HOV analyzing the direction his own life would have gone and everything he would have lost had he continued down this path of feeling entitled to what ever he wants due to his accomplishments.
I could go on and break things down track by track, but honestly, albums like these don't even deserve to be scrutinized in the same way as other artists. Listen, whether or not a person thinks the album is good doesn't even really matter. The amount of game he's blessing the listener with outweighs any sort of review. 4:44 is so much more than just an album, and that is why if HOV were to completely bow out of the game, it would mark the perfect end to his storied career. This is an album for the ambitious marginalized youth out there seeking to find ways to help uplift themselves, their families, and their culture. At the same time, it's an album for the old head who may have lost his way due to ego or pride, and is seeking guidance on how to reclaim what's most important in life. 4:44 is in a league of its own, and is chock full of so many timeless jewels, it's hard to see this one aging as fast as his albums of the past ten years. In this era of "wokeness" we currently live in, HOV couldn't have picked a more opportune time to give fans his most conscious project to date.
Even seventeen years after his prime, the motto "I Will Not Lose" continues to ring true.