Review Summary: Cry, Jay Z, we know the pain is real.
Mark Zuckerberg is running for president. You might not have heard; his presidential exploratory campaign disguised as a goodwill tour has snaked through Alabama, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Indiana, with all the electoral expertise of a man intent on an unwise 50-state strategy. In photos, he points his finger in the way that Willie Stark might, rolling up his sleeves and promising to reach out and connect with people with the inherent coldness of PR expertise, each handshake sanitized both metaphorically and literally. The sentiment is nice, but it all looks like it means nothing, other than the accumulation of money through, *ahem,* goodwill.
Essentially, business leaders aren't very good at connecting with humans. They're cold, technocratic, and suspicious of feeling, trusting of statistics, profit margins, equity, the bottom-line, and a myriad of buzzwords. They don't feel like you and I might feel, and, sure, though they might once have felt the things that you and I feel, they're now also wrapped up in a whole other language that dissuades lowly outsiders from looking in. If you listened to Business Man JAY-Z's last album, Magna Carta Holy Grail
, you got exactly this; a warped sense of personality, made by a man whose idea of existence once involved a racially dented American Dream, but now is just the American Dream. None of which is to say JAY-Z doesn't deserve to make music, it's just that when he does, he often doesn't realize just how boring he sounds making it.
And that's where 4:44
slides into the discussion. Although smothered in the sort of promotion that boosted Beyonce's fantastic self-titled album and Lemonade
(and, coincidentally, sunk Magna Carta
presents itself as a fresher, honest reflection on the recent happenings of Shawn Carter, which, admittedly, isn't just the matters of the bourgeoise. As Carter raps throughout, he admits to infidelity, which directly led to to him abusing Solange in the elevator. He talks about his mother coming out as gay, and the very real implications of that news. He very loudly brings his shame to the fore, raising paranoia over whether or not it was his philandering that caused divine intervention in Beyonce's multiple miscarriages. He even ethers Kanye a little bit, with No I.D. and a "Bam Bam" sample in tow. But, despite the content of the subtext, and the profundity with which Carter appreciates these situations, it's difficult to wrap it all up as a given. 4:44
is merely a victim of actuality: these days, JAY-Z just isn't much of a rapper.
Of course, the rumours of JAY-Z's demise have often been, at best, labored and unnecessary. At his worst, as in "Monster," he delivers words with a lack of grace matched only by his studiously average stadium rap flow. Otherwise, he's specialized in tight, not entirely clever but nevertheless boastful raps that, whilst absolutely stunted in momentum, can make a song worth listening to ("Drug Dealer's Anonymous," "I Got The Keys," "Biking"). Never mind the fact that Beyoncé outperformed him on a song where he trotted out a fairly well done 21 Savage impression; Carter's still got it, whatever it is. But the truth remains that JAY-Z is not spectacularly skilled as either an MC or a lyricist. His style might carry him through a feature, but Reasonable Doubt
, The Black Album
, and, dare I say, The Blueprint 3
, are behind him, and he's settled on a performance practice best described as lounge rap. It's nice to listen to but it's never going to do anything impressive, at all.
biggest fault. Despite JAY-Z's material, he always seems cooly distant to what he's rapping about, in part due to his clumsy technique. Perhaps no song is more emblematic of this than "The Story of OJ," a riff on race through types of 'nig
gas' and the retail value of skin colour. Between a very basic description of appreciation- 'bought some artwork worth 1 million / 2 years later that shit worth 2 million / few years later that shit worth 8 million
,'- and a very basic description of appreciation- 'could'a bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo for like 2 million / that same building today is worth 25 million
,'- he trades on antisemitic stereotypes to prove a very basic point about appreciation. This isn't deeply personal as much as it is a business leader trying and failing to explore himself and his values. He's made a lot of money and, understandably, he's proud of it. But it's clouded his ability to rap about anything at all, and it runs counter to 4:44's
purpose of being intensely personal.
Elsewhere, results vary. "Kill Jay-Z," the album's awfully effective opener, hides most of Carter's better lyricism, discussing family with a closeness far removed from the majority of JAY-Z's other material. Album highlight "Caught Their Eyes" considers solipsism with an intelligence that may or may not be courtesy of Frank Ocean, whilst "Smile," a lovely note to his mother, discusses her sexuality whilst Gloria herself appears to give a simple but affecting motto; 'it's time to be free / love who you love, because life isn't guaranteed
.' At the more ineffectual end, "Moonlight" trades on the 2016 Oscars with a clunky La La Land reference, whilst "Family Feud" trades on an even clunkier Steve Harvey reference just to sound dated. That's without paying much attention to the title track, which manages to place a harsh light on JAY-Z's recent life whilst the words fall out of his mouth with a total lack of charisma. More or less, 4:44
sounds like a late career JAY-Z album (because it is,) replete with the total blankness of the man's performance.
For a rapper whose entire repertoire is essentially boom bap modified for stadium speakers, JAY-Z's 4:44
is remarkable for what it doesn't do; there's no bangers, no singles, and no rap features. Considering JAY's place in the rap pantheon, the personal, the private, the desire to disclose: rarely has it ever shown through, at all. 4:44
tries to amend that somewhat and, with exceptions, occasionally touches on Carter's life on a profoundly personal level. Coupled with No I.D., and devoid of distractions, it's easily his most consistent effort since at least American Gangster
. Sadly, though, it hardly ever emerges from a distant lyrical literalism. Just as Zuckerberg traverses the United States in a desperate attempt to build political capital before 2020, JAY-Z tries to invigorate his musical career by connecting with himself for other people's sake. In total, it sounds like what it is, a business leader for whom the personal proves troublingly difficult to connect with.