Hova or over? For the massed mainstream public Jay Z stands as rap’s towering Colossus, the genre’s breakthrough stadium kingpin, hip-hop’s first Untouchable. But for many of his long-term faithful, he’s lost the blueprint. As he’s embraced crowd-pleasing pop techniques and arena attitudes in his post-hiatus second era he’s lost his fundamental edge, they’d argue, surpassed by upstarts like Kendrick Lamar and his own one-time apprentice Kanye West, which is a bit like Alan Davies ultimately outwitting Sandi Toksvig.
So as his thirteenth album ‘4:44’ hits a very specific part of the internet on June 30, what can it do to overturn the underwhelming nicey-niceyness of 2013’s ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ and return Jay Z to the very peak of the rap pyramid? Here are some suggestions.
Make up with Kanye West
It seems unlikely, considering Kanye only recently had to try to communicate with Jay via onstage rant and accused him of actual murder, but it can’t be denied that many of Jay-Z’s finest moments were the result of his work with Kanye – if not the Lennon & McCartney of rap then at least the Simon & Garfuckyouwhywon’ttheygivemeaclothinglinevotetrump. Their dislocation helps nobody, and while the likes of Timbaland, Pharrell, Swizz Beats and No ID will undoubtedly be representing Jay’s classic production line-up alongside a host of new-found beatmaking talent, without Kanye involved Jay’s albums tend to lack that inspired, unhinged, bears-on-acid-let-loose-in-a-synth-shop feel.
Ditch the formulas
His eyes on the prize of total cultural domination, Jay has of late slipped into the trap of repeating formulas he knows will prove popular. Sure, he did this in the first part of his career too, when he wrote more tracks about growing up selling drugs in Brooklyn than Andrew WK has had hot keg parties and trawled Broadway looking for showstoppers to sample. But when ‘Magna Carta…’ featured yet another duet with Beyonce about lovebirds on the run and predictable inventory checks on the most expensive artworks, jewelleries and fancy clothes that he’d bought since ‘Watch The Throne’ it was all starting to get as tiresome and repetitive as everything Theresa May has ever said. ‘4:44’ needs to be the record where Jay rediscovers his unpredictable, pioneering nature or risk slipping into irrelevance.
Give his State Of The Nation address
During the Obama era, given glimpses of the control panel of the world, Jay Z was flexing his political muscle. He attacked racism and oppression relentlessly, decried greedy lobbyists on the Great Gatsby soundtrack, bit back against criticism of his trip to Cuba on ‘Open Letter’ while boasting of his “White House clearance” and dug into the FBI links to Malcolm X’s death on ‘F.U.T.W.’ In interviews he would praise the uprisings of the Arab Spring, denounce US politicians for keeping black people down and get angry about the shooting of Trayvon Martin and inherent racism in the US prison system. “Politics – it’s a bunch of liars [with] self-interest,” he told The Guardian. “It’s not about the people, it’s about themselves and their rise to power. They are voting on things based on whether they will have the support of the people when they vote next time. They don’t have the balls to say, ‘I believe in this, I don’t care what happens’. And until that changes, nothing is going to get fixed; you’re still going to have 14-year-olds in cities with AK-47s.”
So as Trump’s America falls apart around its (hairpiece-glued) ears and environmental/nuclear catastrophe rushes on 140 characters at a time, there’s surely enough material at hand for Jay’s Big Political Statement Album. America is crying out for a record to make sense of the chaos the world has been plunged into and the cultural left needs a totemic call to arms to rally behind. Make it ‘4:44’.
Get less Beyoncé in general
Now don’t get us wrong, we all love a Jay’n’Bey collab. But whereas, back in 2003, it seemed like Jay’s thug life was turning Beyoncé into gangsta rap’s most glamorous moll, these days it’s more like Jay’s jagged edges have been glossed over with his wife’s heroics. I mean, tuxedo duets with Justin Timberlake? ‘Reasonable Doubt’ Jay-Z is turning in his shallow grave. Jay has always sounded better assimilating rock, metal or leftfield electronica into his music; his forays into pop have sounded at best anodyne and at worst grasping and desperate. So ditch the pop, Jay, and yes that means not copying the whole ‘visual album’ thing.
Separate music from business
In pursuit of his billion-dollar target, Jay has been canny in recognising that the only serious money in modern music is coming from dovetail syncs, commercial tie-ins and soul-flogging sponsorship partnerships. ‘Magna Carta…’ was released in association with Samsung – and caught fire just as easily – while ‘4:44’ joins the growing ranks of high-profile records being released seemingly with the express intent of gathering subscribers to Tidal. Fair play to Jay for building such a successful and profitable business empire in everything from champagne to shoes to sports teams, but when it creeps so deeply into his music it cheapens his art and makes it all the more obvious that the struggling music business is all about stroking our eardrums with one hand while rummaging in our pockets with the other.
Don’t mention the twins
Enough with the soppy dad raps, already. No-one’s ever gonna make a billi doing nappy-rap…