Shawn Carter couldn’t sleep. That’s the answer to the grand puzzle the internet spent a month trying to decode, thanks to some crafty, minimalist marketing. 4:44 isn’t a numerically-coded ode to his BFF Obama, a reference to his favorite number, a numerology message, nor a Bible verse. Just the time on the clock, much like Rosebud was just a sled.
The way some of the album—his thirteenth—and its weightier moments paint the picture, one imagines Jay hadn’t been sleeping well for quite some time. The armchair psychiatrists on Twitter and elsewhere would pin his tossing and turning on the infamous elevator incident that shattered his family’s perfect veneer three years ago. To anyone paying this album full attention, though, it’s clear romantic fidelity, betrayal, and shame are just three out of a whole gaggle of demons tormenting the outwardly affable and, until now, seemingly unbothered, Jay-Z. Who could’ve known? Not us, as Jay is aware. “We know the pain is real, but you can’t heal what you never reveal,” he raps on the opener, and then: “You know you owe the truth to all the youth that fell in love with Jay-Z.” That first song’s title? “Kill Jay Z.” So begins the exorcism.
This is an album of firsts. The first time Jay has locked in with just one producer—the exacting veteran No I.D.—for an entire project. The first Jay-Z album without bids for radio or pandering to current sonic trends. The first time Jay’s admitted to having a therapist. The first official, solo Jay-Z bars since his wife dominated pop culture with a visual album about overcoming infidelity and betrayal at the hands of someone she called the Big Homie. (But it’s not the first Jay-Z album to come packaged with a telecommunications company jig; the man knows how to finesse a bag.)
It’s also the first album since his MJ-Wizards era began that he doesn’t waste time self-mythologizing over the gangster-to-GOAT success story we’ve heard before. 4:44—and “4:44”—is Jay-Z living in the urgent here and now, with a lot of weight to heave off of his chest and a self-imposed constraint of 10 songs to do so—there’s no time to rehash, this is about revelation. But back to that title track. Even with “Kill Jay Z” as a mood-setter, no one who’s been listening to Jigga since Iceberg Slim was the coldest cat could’ve predicted nor prepared themselves for this: a self-lacerating admission of guilt and remorse that makes “Song Cry” seem anemic. The emotions are so raw that the scenes aren’t clearly defined, they’re intense impressions. What exactly does *almost* going Eric Benet entail? When did the relationship issues begin and when were they resolved? The summer after the elevator, Jay and Beyoncé concluded each show on their first joint tour with home videos prefaced by the message “This Is Real Life,” a nod to cynics who thought their relationship couldn’t possibly be genuine. As their latest albums prove though, the Carter-Knowles union is even realer than we might’ve wanted from two of our biggest celebrity superheroes.
The night the album dropped Jay offered brief commentary for each track, describing “4:44” as the project’s “crux.” And it is—but not in terms of the album being a “response” (such silly phrasing, as if Jay and Bey are hearing these tracks addressing their marriage at the same time we are, subbing each other from different wings of the mansion). Beyoncé’s candor may have been the nudge, but to label 4:44 a response or contextualize it within the framework of various confessionals and subliminals is reductive. Jay offers myriad epiphanies about his life and times, revealing more of himself and his past in raw and unexpected ways. “Adnis,” which teases a new chapter in his long, fraught relationship with his father, doesn’t appear on the album proper. But the Carter family history gets peeled back a generation on “Legacy,” exposing ugly abuse visited on his aunt by his grandfather, a reverend—a fact which informed Jay’s relationship to organized religion: “I hated religion ’cause here was this Christian/He was preachin on Sundays, versus how he was livin’ Monday.” Gloria Carter comes out as a lesbian on “Smile,” a mother-son match-up somehow even more touching than “December 4th.” “Living in the shadow feels like the safe place to be,” she says, “…but life is short and it’s time to be free.”
Where there’s pain on 4:44, reconciliation and reckoning follow. Gloria’s bravery encourages Shawn to make himself vulnerable. Blue and her twin siblings offer salvation for the Carter-Knowles family name with the infrastructure Jay plans to leave to them. On “Family Feud,” Beyoncé preaches glory and ascension in the background as Jay turns his fumbling as a husband into an epiphany and rebukes the Beckies at the door. Hov delivers the album’s thesis in its last lines: “See how the universe work? It takes my hurt, and helps me find more of myself.” 4:44 is Jay-Z’s Don-Draper-for-Hershey’s moment, a sudden turn to public openness and honesty that serves as a mea culpa for a private shame from a betrayal informed by a lifetime of issues.
For as much as it is a soul-baring confessional, 4:44 is, of equal import, the best marriage of focused Jay bars and elite production in ten years. Time will tell how it stacks up against American Gangster and Watch the Throne, but this new album finds Jay firmly ensconced in the pocket in ways even his best verses on those releases can’t quite compare to. “Smile” is important and mature, yes, but let’s not overlook how masterfully he blacks out on the third verse, a new best. “Marcy Me” is dazzling: “Hold the uzi vertical, y’all flirtin with death, I’m winking through the scope.” “The Story of O.J.” and “Moonlight” experiment, successfully, with new cadences and flows. A major reason why he’s so comfortable, technically and content-wise, lies in No I.D.’s ingenious decision to build beats and samples out of Jay’s own favorite music. The result is a sound that feels authentic to Jay-Z without sounding like he’s desperate to keep up.
While vulnerability is the thematic lede here, the blueprint for Black Excellence reigns supreme in the lyrics, perhaps even more aggressively than on WTT—no surprise for an album that draws inspiration from the genius of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, and Donny Hathaway, symbols of black longevity and success. Unity, focus, freedom, independence, and ownership take center stage as Hov does his best to impart knowledge without sounding preachy, both to the community (“The Story of O.J.,” “Smile”), and the rap game specifically (“Moonlight,” “Family Feud.”) He invokes Stringer Bell wisdom when he instructs his hustler successors to “take your drug money and buy the neighborhood/That’s how you rinse it.” He casually challenges rap’s new class to do better than the same ad-libs and tropes: “ ‘I’m in the skrt with ya bitch’—cool story.” In addition to Becky bars, “no one wins when the family feuds” advises unity between the generation of rap fan that bought Reasonable Doubt on cassette but look down on the Young Thugs of today, and vice versa. Confrontation is rare, and reserved for those operating counterculture: the Summer Jam Screen’s biggest contestant is L. Londell McMillan, Prince’s estate lawyer; folks who undermine Tidal’s black-owned-business endgame get a half-bar fuck you.
Where there’s pain on 4:44, reconciliation and reckoning follow.
What’s most striking about 4:44 is its utter lack of finality. Coming in at age 47, album 13, and a 4-year hiatus—his longest to date—it was reasonable to assume Jay was treating this as if it at least might be his last. After embarking on the “world’s worst retirement,” he’s said that he’ll never saddle a project with that kind of fanfare again, instead opting for a subtler fade to black that we might not even realize at first. This album doesn’t feel like that at all—he sounds weary in some ways, but technically speaking, more energized than ever. At one point it seemed as if the Shawn of today, father of three, was only capable of making projects with years to craft them, a far cry from his ’96 to ’03 run of churning out an album every nine to 12 months. But recent interviews with I.D. reveal these sessions only started in earnest six months ago (and concluded just last week, as eleventh-hour Jigga is wont to do.)
These were flashes of brilliance on his previous outing, 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, the product of making songs with too-familiar collaborators off the cuff and the D’usse. Still, as much as a song like “Nickels and Dimes” preaches similar messages of legacy and wealth, it had lines likem “I cut myself the other day to see if I still bleed.” (To match “Other day this bitch asked if I was God” on “Crown.”) On album 13, God bleeds profusely. It’s that type of unchecked hubris he’s resolved to do away with at the outset. Note the hyphen’s official return to his name after disappearing at the top of the decade, a move confirmed to Complex by Jay’s publicist back in 2013. Then compare that with the lack of a hyphen in “Kill Jay Z.” What seemed like typographical nitpicking making news may actually be Jay delineating his worst self.
The ego is “killed off” in the intro, but by “Bam”—an exercise in flexing as a breath of fresh air after the album’s heaviest tracks—Hova (“fuck all that pretty Shawn Carter shit!”) realizes a little ego goes a long way. After 10 tracks, the persona left standing isn’t entirely clear. Shawn Carter the hustler; Jay-Z the business, man; Hov the God MC and JAY hyphen-back Z have amalgamated into a something new. Someone who can rest peacefully through the wee hours of the morning, and wake up refreshed.
R.I.P. JAY Z, time of death: 4:44 AM.