Fighter: Jay Z

Trainer (Gym): No I.D. (Roc Nation)

Cut Men: No I.D., James Blake, Dominic Maker

Weight Class: Rap Superstar/Lyrical Heavyweight

Notable Fire: Kill Jay Z, Smile, 4:44, Family Feud (Feat. Beyoncé), Marcy Me

Notable Trash: None

Tale Of The Tape: Not only were his best years behind him, they had long since disappeared in his rear view mirror. The charm, brought on by a slick blend of moxie and bravado, had long since dissipated. Still good enough to garner attention by name recognition alone, he limped into what was seemingly his Waterloo. Our hero was out-manned and looking down the barrel; ironically, his only chance at survival was absolute vulnerability.

And somehow, Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire on October 29, 1974.

Leaning on the ropes incessantly exposed Ali to Foreman’s power. The bigger, younger stronger fighter would have every opportunity to put the cunning veteran away. But over time, his offensive attack would wither, melting away in the searing West African heat.

Apropos, Jay Z likened himself to “The Greatest” on his last album Magna Carta… Holy Grail when he uttered, “Muhammad Hovi, my back against the ropes.” It actually wasn’t the only time he ran with this parallel (see: “American Gangster”), but it proved to be far more prophetic the second time around. MCHG has aged like milk, rapidly sinking down the rankings of Jay albums for most fans since its release in 2013. Since then, Jigga sold his shares of the Brooklyn Nets, engaged in an infamous elevator tussle with his sister-in-law, purchased and relaunched his own streaming service (Tidal) and was put on blast by his megastar wife in such a way that it earned a Peabody Award. And he aged four full years.

At 47, Jay Z appeared to be all out of ideas. With two to three (depending on who you ask) classics on his résumé, more record sales than any rapper ever not named Eminem, and the most albums debuting at number one in the history of music, there wasn’t much left for him to accomplish. He did the stories about trappin. He did the stories about his rise as an executive. He rapped about racism. He rapped about art. He told more tales about ballin than Ric Flair and Ted DiBiase combined. What was left for him to say that anybody really cared about?

The announcement of 4:44 two weeks prior to its release didn’t quite carry the same buzz as most Jay Z albums, but that didn’t stop him from delivering his best LP since The Black Album, and his most impactful LP since The Blueprint.

Though Jay once admitted that “Regrets” off his debut album Reasonable Doubt was the closet Shawn Carter ever came to meeting Jay Z on wax, the Roc Nation general would blur those lines so efficiently on 4:44, some speculated he had actually succeeded in the proposed action of the record’s opening track, “Kill Jay Z”. As discussed in depth on The HHSR Podcast, this was easily Jay Z’s most intimate piece from start to finish, the lack of which being a primary antidote used against him in the Nas v. Hov argument, as well as the GOAT rapper debate.

The scathing self-examination begins on that opening track with Carter questioning his existence as a rap star and acknowledging the pain it has caused himself and those close to him. Of note, he puts his own relationship with friend and protégé Kanye West under the microscope by calling attention to the $20 million he allegedly fronted Ye, and the 20 minutes West spent airing out Jay on stage in Sacramento. But there were several other bars throughout the album that left us wondering if Hov was taking aim at Yeezy. Not just the obvious, “But you ain’t a saint, this ain’t kumbaye/But you got hurt because you did cool by ‘Ye,” but also the bar just prior, “You walkin’ around like you invincible/You dropped outta school, you lost your principles/I know people backstab you, I felt bad too/But this ‘fuck everybody’ attitude ain’t natural“. The rhythmic “Caught Their Eyes” was an entire song dedicated to seeing through enemies (or potentially fake friends). And then there’s this line, which left many on Twitter in stitches.

In the end, Jay puts the onus of the friendship failing back on himself. “Fuck wrong with everybody?” is what you sayin’/But if everybody’s crazy, you’re the one that’s insane.” The self-deprecation would then lead to two epic lines about where Hov criticizes himself as a husband and potentially a father, while simultaneously lighting up Future and singer Eric Benét. Put it all together and you have one of the most fire intros of Jay Z’s illustrious career.

Jay’s self-discovery and the admission of his shortcomings climaxes mid-album with the title track. Shawn barely raps at all, rather speaking words that together merely seem rhyme by happenstance. He sounds almost unconcerned with the chore of rapping, which conveys a certain contrition in the apology.

“Look, I apologize, often womanize/
Took for my child to be born, see through a woman’s eyes/
Took for these natural twins to believe in miracles/
Took me too long for this song, I don’t deserve you”

Hov gets even deeper as he takes ownership of his failures as a spouse and father spiritually. “I apologize for all the stillborns/Cause I wasn’t present your body wouldn’t accept it.” It’s a complete 180 from the Jay Z we came up with partying on yachts. From his admission of guilt, he then describes the epiphany he experienced while watching The Godfather regarding the issues under his roof on “Family Feud”. Hov’s vulnerability was poignant; still he continued to drop revelations, such as letting the world know his mother was living in the closet on “Smile”.

Race and wealth take center stage on “The Story of O.J.“, with Shawn Corey explaining how fluid characteristics, such as fame and fortune, will never overcome the hurdles presented by one’s skin tone, if it happens to be of a darker hue. He pivots on this platform to emphasize the importance of financial freedom to Black Americans. Economic empowerment would be a central theme of 4:44. There is a need for Black Americans to spend their money with Black owned business, to make intelligent investments in appreciating assets (like land and art) and to create generational wealth. The “business, man!” made certain to bring each of these issues to light.

Where 4:44 gets into trouble is when these issues are juxtaposed to the album and the artist itself. Available for streaming only on Tidal, Carter’s “buy Black” mantra is clearly self-serving, thus turning this artistry into a bit of a lengthy commercial. (But does that negate its merit? Probably not.) The same is true for the inflated prices he’s charging for his 4:44 tour. Do you really want to drop a stack on two concert tickets to hear a guy rap about making sound financial decisions? But hey, you can’t knock the hustle.

The entire album (all 36 minutes of it, 46 plus bonus tracks) was produced by No I.D., a long time Roc partner who, with this spotlight, did enough to legitimize his place as one of the great producers in this era. Two other producers received a credit, however they only appeared on the bonus songs.

Sidebar: Pro tip for all young producers: If you use lots of ’70s samples, your music will instantaneously contain more soul.

Fight Night: First Round KO

While the lack of anticipation may have worked in his favor, the degree of difficulty in creating a work of this magnitude (beats, rhymes and content) — 21 years and 14 albums into his career, left for dead by many, with seemingly no one wanting to hear what he had to say, exposing his entire life and all of his shortcomings — is worth the highest rating in HHSR’s five-year history and the only first round KO ever given.

To think Game once clowned Jay Z for just rapping at 38 (Game will be 38 before the end of the year) now seems laughable. Jay has opened the lane up wide for elder-statesmen, proving that they still can have not only a place, but an impact on hip-hop. It’s rare that anything wins the internet this decisively in 2017, yet Jay Z, a man who peaked professionally 15 years ago, found a way to make magic. He anointed himself, “the Mike Jordan of the mic recording”, but the story of 4:44 reads way more like Jay Z’s own Rumble in the Jungle.

4:44 possess music that is suitable for nearly any setting. Much of the criticism it’s faced is specious, such as other rappers having tackled this subject matter long ago, or allegedly having an intended aristocratic audience; as if he forfeited the right to take a crack at this angle, or Black folks in a lower tax brackets aren’t able to better manager their money. The point is, game was sprinkled generously throughout this project with great precision. The “Footnotes” Hov created, video of real (albeit famous) men having real conversations about the overarching themes on the album, are brilliant and have helped generate conversations amongst 30-40 something Black men like no project in recent memory.

Because of its built-in emotion, 4:44 struck an emotional cord with that same group of people — a group that rarely wants, is capable of, or allowed to tap into their emotions — that they didn’t even know existed.

“Oh, y’all thought I was washed?” Actually, yeah a lot of people did. Evidently, a lot of people thought wrong.

Rumble young man, rumble.

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