Jay-Z has always been the most confident guy in the pack. Therefore, it was a struggle to hear him compete with the new kids on 2013’s Magna Carta. We diehards fans knew he was capable of more, even as we shimmied to “Tom Ford”. Art collection and designer label bars were no longer fulfilling. Jay-Z was a father, husband and hip-hop veteran. Weren’t there more poignant issues to address?
While I rarely have lofty political expectations for artists, I anticipated heightened awareness from Jay-Z on “4:44”, given the country’s current social climate. No I.D, whom I’ve been a fan of since Common’s Resurrection, was solely enlisted for the album, so the production being solid was a given. Would Jay-Z’s lyrics match it? Well, Black economic empowerment, homosexuality, financial literacy, infidelity and generational wealth are all explored on 4:44 in ways that he’s never done so on wax. At 47, it was about time, right? Whether he’s truly baring his soul on every song or if this new layer is merely another example of brilliant marketing matters not. 4:44’s cohesion and direction make it Jay-Z’s most mature work to date. I’m seldom present for “mumble rap”, so this level of sophistication is welcomed.
Clocking in at a mere 36-miuntes, 4:44 is refreshingly concise. Jay-Z doesn’t waste bars and No I.D.’s soul loops never become tedious. There’s no obvious, radio-friendly single. Trends aren’t chased here. Jay-Z goes beyond sporadic introspection and makes candor the central theme of the album. Blacker than he’s ever been content-wise, though revealing no conclusion the “woke” brigade hasn’t already reached. Nonetheless, if one is inspired from listening; mission accomplished. Isn’t inspiration the ultimate objective of art? The lyrical wit is there, but craftier than it’s been since The Black Album. “Niggas is skippin’ leg day/Just to run they mouth” is a kill shot Kanye never heard coming. Jay-Z sounds most at home when he does what he’s arguably unparalleled at: influencing the culture…an aspect that is key to his legendary status. Missing from his music for nearly a decade, it makes its return on 4:44. “Welcome back, Carter”.