Jay Z likes to bill himself as anything but human. In his eyes, he’s hip-hop’s holy prophet, a certified billionaire and an innovator. He’s compared his work to renaissance sculptures. No sitting down, no being humble. All these things considered, 13th album ‘4:44’ feels like a revelation. It’s a record of humility, honesty and one gigantic apology.
Beyoncé’s jaw-dropping 2016 album ‘Lemonade’ put Jay Z on the spot, accusing him of infidelity. One year later, ’4:44’ addresses the scandal face on. There’s no room for denial or lame excuses. Instead, Jay admits he would “probably die with all the shame” if the affair saw him losing his wife and children. He even addresses the 2014 incident when Bey’s sister Solange threw punches in an elevator, captured on CCTV. “You egged Solange on,” he tells himself, “knowin’ all along, all you had to say you was wrong.” Best of all is the title track, which recounts the first time he wooed his wife, before declaring: “I don’t deserve you.”
These heartfelt, confessional apologies are delivered via Jay’s most concise, straightforward album in years. 10 tracks and 36 minutes long, this is a filler-free return to form after 2013’s patchy and bloated ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’.
But if Jay Z is saying sorry to those closest to him, he’s not apologising for anything else. The Nina Simone-sampling ‘The Story of O.J.’ is all rags to riches bravado. “I bought some artwork for one million… Few years later, that shit worth eight million,” he boasts. Purchasing TIDAL and making everyone sign up to hear his music is a controversial move, but he doesn’t seem to care. And ‘4:44’’s old-school production feels like a statement in itself. There’s a perennial battle between the ‘new rap’ and ‘old rap’ worlds. In 2015, Young Thug told GQ he would “never buy” a Jay Z CD, “just because of my age and because of his age.” Jay’s response is the Beyoncé-featuring ‘Family Feud’, which claims “I’m the realest n***a rappin’” over slick, gospel production. In this kind of form, he’s hard to match.
From a cynical point of view, it’s suspiciously convenient to see hip-hop’s most talked-about soap opera played out exclusively on a streaming platform that Jay Z himself owns. Every ‘OMG!’ talking point puts more money in his pocket. Are his fans being played? But the fact remains: as a direct, firework-filled admission of past mistakes, ‘4:44’ couldn’t be more watertight.