JAY-Z sounds previous. Greater than that, he sounds drained. On four:44’s title monitor and centerpiece, he appears like he’s rapping right into a cellphone; there’s a tinny, Eight-track immediacy because the rapper disembowels himself over his much-publicized infidelities. By the third verse, he’s picturing his youngsters listening to the tune, barely even on the beat—“You risked that for Blue?” he asks, a crack audible in his voice, Hannah Williams pattern wailing indefinitely. Because the story goes, Jay wakened and wrote the monitor at four:44 within the morning, a cosmic reminder of his devotion to Beyoncé—they have been each born on the fourth day of their respective months, and have matching “IV” tattoos on their ring fingers. Accordingly sufficient, the monitor appears like a darkish night time of the soul, as if he ripped off the verse in a lodge rest room earlier than the solar was even up. That is the kind of drama that drives four:44, and it’s the kind of factor you may solely give a shit about when you have been already deeply invested in JAY-Z’s private saga.
Lord is aware of Jay is. Hip-hop is a medium of self-mythologizing—you may argue it’s the very engine that drives it—however the god emcee Jay-Hova’s ego particularly is aware of no bounds. He’s been writing his story since Cheap Doubt, the wiseass ruefully pushing crack below a lamppost who hustled an album a 12 months till he retired to a lifetime of board rooms, Beyoncé, and billion-dollar desires. four:44 represents a form of third act for the rapper, a return to earth after a decade-plus of flawed flights of fancy. It lives and dies in your engagement with the story of its creator, and, as Jay would have it, with the previous twenty years of hip-hop, each model he’s inhabited, mishandled, or outlived—the mafioso don, the shiny fits, the loss of life of Auto-Tune, Chris Martin. Whether or not you latched onto the saga at Cheap Doubt, or the everlasting bounce of that Annie pattern, or when he lastly discovered, in Kanye, a producer whose compositions matched Jay’s black-Sinatra aspirations, four:44 serves as a sort of fruits. It’s not an actualization—that occurred on The Blueprint, in 2001—however reasonably a denouement to this long-unspooling narrative.
The issue, in fact, is that when you didn’t comply with together with that eight-album, eight-year sizzling streak—which led to, good lord, 2003—Jay will come throughout as a self-satisfied asshole on four:44, extra model than man. It doesn’t assist that a lot of his post-Black Album second act has been taken up by fussy, ill-fitting data: the turgid stabs at rap radio of Kingdom Come or The Blueprint three; the fan-service cosplay of American Gangster; the ugly Illuminati life-style rap of Watch The Throne and Magna Carta Holy Grail. (The issues that work on Watch The Throne belong to Kanye, not Jay.) All of which is to say that four:44 is rap music that performs to a really particular demographic of rap followers—particularly, previous ones. They (we) reacted joyously when the album got here out final Friday and over-performed its decidedly uninspired cellphone-carrier announcement. However since then a backlash has reared its head, chipping away at its aura through criticisms of Jay’s off-handed anti-Semitism, his relentless insistence upon retro notions of capitalist success, and that raspy, barely out-of-shape circulate.
The thorny factor is that that is a part of the album’s attraction, too. You at all times know you’re just a little too near an art work whenever you assume its flaws are its virtues. However for individuals who drank the Kool-Assist again when Jay was flexing about Motorola two-way pagers reasonably than doubtful Dash cross-promotions, that very haggard timelessness is a part of the attraction—like seeing Harrison Ford schlub it round as Han Solo one final time, nonetheless hale and whip-smart though, hoo boy, that man is 74. Jay’s solely 47, however that’s virtually geological in rap. It’s by no means been precisely clear how a rapper is meant to develop previous on report. Most throw within the towel, like Ice Dice or, to a lesser extent, Massive Boi. Stylists like Q-Tip or Ka follow their weapons, discovering quiet innovation inside their established parameters. Pure rappers need to maintain the hearth alive, one way or the other, keep loopy, like 2 Chainz or Gucci Mane. Jay’s just a little little bit of each of those, however he’s additionally greater than them, the “finest rapper alive” as international model. No one thinks he’s anymore—most likely not even Jay—however he has to hold himself as if he’s on report. As a result of if not, who’s he?
four:44 is fascinating as a result of it each upholds that model of himself and buckles beneath its weight. As with our different preeminent long-form storytelling medium, tv, the attraction right here is in seeing a person of immense energy and likability damaged, weakened, and oh-so-relatable. Hell, he even goes Tony Soprano-beating-up-Perry on the all-purpose diss monitor “Moonlight.” He’s aided immeasurably on this effort by producer No I.D., whose 10 beats right here handle directly to maintain Jay in his consolation zone—a mid-tempo stretch of luxurious soul samples chopped into an unconscionably costly ambient blur, like an excellent, gauzy status TV present.
We don’t a lot hear his aspect of the Lemonade saga as we do witness its repercussions—and anyway, anybody who likes this album will probably be way more thrilled to listen to him defend the unbearable art-world name-dropping of Magna Carta as a Jeezy-esque instrument for black empowerment (“Y’all assume it’s bougie, I’m like, it’s effective / However I’m tryin’ to offer you one million ’ price of recreation for $9.99”). The album’s different attention-getting moments work as installments within the grander Shawn Carter saga: The off-handed revelation of his mother’s sexuality on “Smile” is a continuation of her central function on The Black Album; final time Blue Ivy was on a monitor, she simply yawped, solely a pair days previous, however on “Legacy,” she speaks. She is asking her dad about wealth administration. She is her father’s daughter.
It’s all in there, at this level—mother, daughter, spouse, failure, future, board rooms, effective artwork, the lamppost, even Kanye, whose personal self-image rivals Jay’s. “I turned my life into a pleasant first-week launch date,” he says on “The Story Of O.J.” a template for capitalist transcendence that few would ever try. It’s Jay’s dream, the American one, one thing so massive he struggled to place phrases to for years, rapping from a seaside chair and mendacity about his age, making an attempt on varied pop kinds to see what may stick. That he lastly obtained all of it on the market on four:44 proves, a long time later, how titanic was the parable he dreamed of himself. What might be extra unbearable than that? What might be extra American?