The Breakdown, 4:44, by Jay-Z

There’s a lot of weight behind Jay-Z’s name, to the point that it requires more explanation to leave him out of your top five emcees of all time list than to put him in. Both his body of work and his ability to remain relevant make Hov arguably the most influential rapper of all time. It’s been over twenty years since Reasonable Doubt, his classic debut album, was released, and nearly thirty since his first appearance on wax. Not everything he’s put out has been great (or even good) but if you stack all his hit records they outweigh just about anyone’s. If you ask me, the last great Jay-Z album came out in 2003 and each release since then has continued to get worse. I’m happy to say that with 4:44, that streak has ended.

  1. Kill Jay Z

Produced by No I.D.

4:44 is a reset button. If the last album Magna Carter Holy Grail, was Jay’s attempt at sounding young and following trends, “Kill Jay Z” is a rejection of all the ego-driven behavior that has eroded his relationships and artistic integrity. Instrumentally, No I.D.’s production isn’t flashy or overdone. The music is tight, but reserved, accompanying Jay-Z message. On the last few albums it felt like Jay-Z was trying to keep up, adapting his style to fit in with what was hot at the time, but it didn’t really feel truly authentic. This new album feels like it was built in the opposite direction.

Facilitated by production made to accompany his voice, Jay-Z is honest and open about everything that is weighing on him. From his lingering guilt over shooting his brother as a kid, to trying to be a good father when his wasn’t there, to the turmoil he’s caused in his immediate family, to his high profile disputes with Kanye, Jay-Z is putting it all out there in an effort to clear his conscious and start anew.

On the whole, I loved the album the first time I listened through it, but this opening track was the last one to click for me. The instrumental felt too reserved and in the background, and the whole thing felt kind of flat. After listening to the album over and over, it became clear to me why it is so important for Jay-Z’s voice to stand front and center and have no competition for limelight. The power of this song comes from it’s message, with the music only serving as the vessel.

  1. The Story of O.J.

Produced by No I.D. & Jay-Z

The “I’m not black I’m O.J. / … Ok” line is without a doubt the most quotable on the entire album. The claim O.J. Simpson made during his trial saying that his success and celebrity lifted him above the struggle that black americans faces is here challenged by Jay-Z who is currently more successful and influential than O.J. was in his prime.

I love the Nina Simone samples that are all over this album, and No I.D.’s chops of Nina’s vocal on “Four Women” are especially great here intertwined with flutes and the piano. The beat sputters and lurches, but being tucked behind Jay-Z makes it less jarring and helps to smooth it out in a way that keeps it listenable and interesting. Not only does this sample work musically, but the connection between Nina tracing the lineage of slavery to the civil rights movement only adds to Jay-Z’s message that racism cannot be escaped, despite status or stature.

  1. Smile (featuring Gloria Carter)

Produced by No I.D. & Jay-Z

The production on “Smile” is incredible and might be the best on the album. From the sample of Stevie’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today”, to the trap-influenced hi-hats, to the harmonized “ooohs”, this one is just so smooth. Compared to the first part of the album, “Smile” hits a little harder as the instrumentals are turned up to fill more space around Jay-Z. No longer does Hov have complete dominance of the sonic landscape, No I.D. is now demanding just as much attention.

Lyrically, this song is a touching show of support from Jay-Z’s as he embraces his mother’s sexuality–”Cried tears of joy when you fell in love / Don’t matter to me if it’s a him or her”–and celebrates the happiness she’s found in freely being herself. While he spends most of the song discussing his rise to prominence and refusal to bow to any masters, his message of remaining true to himself connects his story to his mother’s courageous decision to be open about who she is. On top of all that, the poem his mother reads at the end of the song as Stevie’s vocals trail off just kills me. I really mess with the positivity and warmth of this song.

  1. Caught Their Eyes (featuring Frank Ocean)

Produced by No I.D. & Jay-Z

You already know I’m going to love a Frank Ocean feature. Every collaboration he’s had with Hov has been great and this might be their best yet. No I.D. comes through with another prominent and perfectly chopped Nina Simone sample in an airy instrumental with skipping drums that has a really nice breezy feel. I love the way Jay-Z half-sings over the begining of his verse and Frank’s delivery is as good as it always is. This is one of the few songs on the album that I don’t listen to for a lyrical message. It’s nice to take a break from all the deeply personal lyrics to give with a bouncy track featuring, in my opinion, the best R&B artist in the game.

  1. 4:44

Produced by No I.D.

After a break from lyrical density, the title track comes in full force, bringing the most introspective and sincere song on the album. One of my favorite things about this record is the way Jay is experimenting with his delivery. This is the closest I’ve ever heard to spoken word from Hov and the style fits the content. As he pours himself out in his lyrics, apologizing for all he’s done wrong to his wife and family, he makes sure that every word he articulates can be heard and understood. The matter-of-fact execution gives gravitas to his message of shame, humility, and the desire to be a better husband and a better father. You cannot mistake the hurt and pain in Jay’s performance and there is a lot of power in that.

  1. Family Feud (featuring Beyonce)

Produced by No I.D.

The first few times I listened to this song I thought it was mostly about the feud within Jay’s immediate family, but after awhile it became clear that he’s drawing parallels between his weaknesses of selfishness, jealousy and greed to the infighting happening in hip-hop culture.  Today, Hip-hop is as old as rock music was in the mid 1990’s, and Jay-Z is helping to define what it means to age within the genre. 4:44 is proof that rap isn’t just a young man’s game, and there is a place for “dadrap” where your thirteenth album can be as great as your earlier work.

“Family Feud” is a plea for the older generation of hip-hop musicians to stop hating on the those that are coming up behind them. He says, “And old niggas, y’all stop actin’ brand new / Like 2Pac ain’t have a nose ring too”. Many forget how now-established artists had to change what it meant to be great and that their means and methods were revolutionary at the time. It’s hard to keep that in mind that artists like OutKast, Eminem, Wu-Tang, and the like were revolutionary at the time, and it took the younger generation to uplift them to the iconic status they occupy now. It’s not fair to tell an up-and-coming rapper that he can’t wear a dress on his album cover or drown himself in auto tune while not being able to freestyle on a boom-bap beat because what made OutKast, Eminem and Wu-Tang great was the way they broke the rules by being themselves unapologetically.

At the same time, Jay makes the case that the new generation needs to pay respect for those who broke conventions before them, laying the groundwork for their own rebellion. Without previous revolutions in hip hop, artists wouldn’t be able to create with the freedom and diversity they enjoy now. Without mutual respect between those who have established themselves and those who aim to break all the rules to make new ones, the genre will disappear and lose all relevance. That cycle of revolution and rebellion is what makes American music great, and all eyes are on hip hop as the youngest genre in that lineage.

  1.  Bam (featuring Damian Marley)

Produced by No I.D.

This is the first song on the album that I can’t rock with. The reggae influence and the Damian Marley feature don’t mesh well enough to justify it’s awkward placement on the album. While I appreciated the break from introspection on “Caught Their Eyes”, this intermission seems to delve into Hov’s ego and kills the vibe instead of giving it a respite. I hate to say it because the rest of the album is great up until this point, but I skip this track every time.

  1. Moonlight

Produced by No I.D.

“Moonlight” is an improvement over “Bam”, but not by much. I love the Fugees sample and Jay clowning on lines like “Ya’ll fuck the same fuckin’ chicks / I’m the skirt with ya–yeah right”, but the god-awful hook and corny topic of the song make this one skippable too.

  1. Marcy Me

Produced by No I.D.

Here we go, this is much better. “Marcy Me” is a display of the power of Jay’s colorful poetics, and his ability to transport you into a time and place in his world. The first verse is an exercise in how it’s still possible to make a song about starting from the bottom in the 80’s and 90’s in an interesting and engaging way. The song is a love letter to his home, the Marcy projects, rooting the album in Jay’s past, a reminder of where he’s come from and how much of his success he has to be thankful for.

  1. Legacy

Produced by No I.D. & Jay-Z

As “Marcy Me” looks to Jay’s past before he built his empire, “Legacy” asks the question, what is it all for? After all the success, wealth and fame, Jay-Z lays out his plan for wielding his fortune and influence. By first taking care of his family and then “start a society within a society / That’s major, just like the Negro League”, he wants to uplift the people and communities that supported him during his come up.

Musically, this song mirrors Hov’s uplifting, positive message with samples of muted horns and and understated drums. Hov’s new spoken word flow that’s all over this album works really well with the lush and laid back instrumental. No I.D. really did something special on this album. He was able to make a cohesive sound that spans the entire project that never got stale or mundane. He did that through deep sampling, carefully crafted compositions and the kind of refined taste that requires decades to cultivate. There are no cheap tricks or smoke and mirrors on 4:44, No I.D. created the stage and props that allowed Jay to reinvent himself and enter a new chapter of his career enriched by maturity and wisdom.

The strength of this album doesn’t just come from the apologies in response to Lemonade or the stripping of his braggadocious “Jay-Z” persona. To truly be selfless, Hov can’t just talk about how he’s rejecting everything he used to be, he must refocus on family and community. If this album ended with more confessions and apologies, it would still be all about Jay and his problems. What’s important here is the new mentality of giving back and striving to elevate those who are in need, which makes “Legacy” the perfect close to the album.

On that note, I’d usually vote to include bonus tracks on a review, but these really feel like throwaways. Aside from the touching “Adnis”, where Jay-Z pens a letter to his absent father, none of the tracks tacked on the end of the album have any business near it. There’s something to be said for releasing extra material along with the main project, but given the thematic cohesiveness across the tight ten-track list, most of the bonus material here ends up actually taking away from the overall feel of the album. Sticking to the standard track list on 4:44 is the way to go if you want proof that Jay-Z is still without a doubt a contender for that ever-elusive title of GOAT.

Micah Roehlkepartain