I was not around for JAY-Z’s come up; JAY-Z did not enter my music catalog until high school, and at that point he was past his comeback stage and on to bigger and better things. I have always known him as the Roc Nation and Tidal-owning dad married to Beyonce, more as a businessman than a musician and more as a father figure to hip-hop than an artist himself. In that light, JAY-Z takes the role of father figure on 4:44, speaking about ideas and events only JAY-Z could speak of to a younger audience of artists and listeners. On top of that, he does it with a producer only he and a small handful of superstars could access for an entire album’s production: No ID. The album is only 10 songs deep and 35 minutes long, but the subject matter he touches on is expansive; this is important coming from an artist who is bigger than music itself.
“Kill Jay Z”
The album begins with “Kill Jay Z,” a manic testament to what his life could have been had his mistakes gotten the best of him. At the age of 12, JAY-Z shot his brother, who struggled with drug abuse, over a stolen ring. On “Kill Jay Z,” (which, given the apparent name change from “Jay Z” to “JAY-Z,” might suggest the transformation of his former self in favor of who he is now), he mentions the shooting and how it suggests his lack of trustworthiness, which he says he must do better for his daughter. He speaks of the guilt felt from his former days selling drugs, how is ego overcame himself in the 1999 stabbing incident that could have landed him 15 years in prison, and how he almost lost his wife to infidelity. “Kill Jay Z’ is a song of regret meant to off his ego and let the new “JAY-Z” live the life he was supposed to live.
It is worth mentioning the possible shot at Kanye West,
“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
You gave him 20 million without blinkin’
He gave you 20 minutes on stage, fuck was he thinkin’?
‘Fuck wrong with everybody?’ is what you sayin’
But if everybody’s crazy, you’re the one that’s insane.”
The “20 million,” “20 minutes” line is purportedly about an advance given by JAY-Z to Kanye for the Saint Pablo Tour, which he infamously walked away from and was hospitalized. It’s sad seeing their relationship sour, considering their long and bountiful history together.
“The Story of O.J.”
On the next song, JAY-Z looks at his stake in the free market and at black capitalism as a whole with the Nina Simone track “Four Women” acting as the sample. The first line, referencing the infamous quote from O.J. Simpson, “I’m not black, I’m O.J” begins JAY-Z’s story of being black in the American dream over winding and whirling drum and bass. He then speaks of when he bought cars instead of investing at the burgeoning of his career, using this as a point to be made about the gentrification of Brooklyn.
“I bought every V12 engine
Wish I could take it back to the beginning
I coulda bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo
For like 2 million
That same building today is worth 25 million
Guess how I’m feelin’? Dumbo.”
“Dumbo” is an area of Brooklyn as well as the main character of the classic Disney film that infamously features racist caricatures of black people represented as crows. This image is flipped in JAY-Z’s adaption, as seen at the end of the official video with JAY-Z flying as Dumbo dropping money over Brooklyn residents.
“Smile ft. Gloria Carter”
“Smile” features JAY-Z’s mother, Gloria Carter, and is her way of coming out as gay. He speaks of his love for his mother and how all he wants for her is to, indeed, “smile.” This track also delivers some of his most tactile and tenacious verses on the album, reminding all listeners that JAY-Z still has it with lines like the one below, a statement to the head of Apple Music to respect Tidal.
“Fuck a slice of the apple pie, want my own cake
In charge of my own fate
Respect Jimmy Iovine
But he gotta respect the Elohim as a whole new regime.”
The song ends with a poem by Gloria Carter about living her life as a homosexual and what it means to live “in the shadow.”
“Living in the shadow
Can you imagine what kind of life it is to live?
In the shadows people see you as happy and free
Because that’s what you want them to see
Living two lives, happy, but not free
You live in the shadows for fear of someone hurting your family or the person you love
The world is changing and they say it’s time to be free
But you live with the fear of just being me
Living in the shadow feels like the safe place to be
No harm for them, no harm for me
But life is short, and it’s time to be free
Love who you love, because life isn’t guaranteed
“Caught Their Eyes ft. Frank Ocean”
The lovable recluse Frank Ocean makes an appearance on this song as the main man behind the chorus. As only JAY-Z could say, the entire second verse is dedicated to his conversations with Prince and the industry’s exploitation of the star after his death. He says,
“I sat down with Prince, eye to eye
He told me his wishes before he died
Now, Londell McMillan, he must be color blind
They only see green from them purple eyes…
This guy had ‘Slave’ on his face
You think he wanted the masters with his masters?
You greedy bastards sold tickets to walk through his house
I’m surprised you ain’t auction off the casket.”
Frank Ocean speaks of solipsism, or the theory that one’s self is all that can be proven to exist. This can be seen to contrast the idea that Prince was played by others posthumously, but philosophy is always up for debate.
“4:44,” “Family Feud ft. Beyonce”
JAY-Z woke up at 4:44 in the morning to write the title track of this album which explains and seeks to remedy his infidelity. The word “apologize” is so frequently used as Hannah Williams and The Affirmations deliver a haunting sample; Williams’ melodic screams offset by her repeatedly singing “I’m never gonna treat you like I should” elaborate JAY-Z’s heartbreak over his romantic mistakes. He apologizes for his lack of presence in his marriage and how that led to a miscarriage, pondering the day he has to tell his children what he did to their mother. The song belts self-turmoil and agony but is elevated by the next track which features his wife singing just as loud as Williams, except positively; as Beyonce sings, JAY-Z raps “nobody wins when the family feuds.”
“Bam ft. Damian Marley”
Only an artist as successful and powerful as JAY-Z could get a Damian Marley feature. With “Bam Bam” by Sister Nancy acting as one of the main samples, this song has one of the hardest sounds on the album. With “Jay Z” dead, “JAY-Z” is now allowed to live and the ego here is in full force. He says,
“Sometimes you need your ego, gotta remind these fools
Who they effin’ with, and we got FN’S too
Before we had A&R’s, we had AR’s too
We the only ones really movin’ like y’all say y’all do.”
Throwing jabs at this year’s Oscars, “Moonlight” plays on a sample from the Fugees’ “Fu-Gee-La.” As Lauryn Hill sings “ooh la la la,” JAY-Z claims today’s rappers are “stuck in La la Land,” stating “even when we win, we gon’ lose.” He speaks on the rap scene today as everybody having the same cadence, cars, girls, and signing deals, questioning why artists would do such a thing,
“After all they done stole, for real?
After what they done to our Lauryn Hill?”
The line about losing Lauryn Hill to the music industry, like Moonlight losing its special moment to La La Land, is powerful, especially over vocals from Miseducation herself.
“Marcy Me,” “Legacy”
The last two songs on the album are rolling and reminiscent of all the subject matter discussed in the album. JAY-Z’s childhood home was the Marcy Houses in Brooklyn; he remembers his childhood heroes and hip-hop influences while quoting Hamlet,
“Gave birth to my verbal imagination
Assume a virtue if you have not
Or better yet here’s a verse from Hamlet
‘Lord, we know who we are
Yet we know not what we may be’
So maybe I’m the one or maybe I’m crazy
I’m from Marcy Houses, where the boys die by the thousand
Back when Pam was on Martin
Yeah, that’s where it all started.”
“Legacy” begins with his daughter Blue asking, “Daddy, what’s a will?” Closing out the album, JAY-Z says,
“See how the universe works?
It takes my hurt and help me find more of myself
It’s a gift and a curse
That’s called the red queen’s race.”
A reference to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, JAY-Z explains how hard he must work to keep up with the world around him. Hard work is the mantra of this album as well as the mantra of JAY-Z as an artist, and it all comes together when he gives this advice to his daughter on the concluding song.
4:44 comes at such a time in music when great artists emerge every day, but having an artist as successful as JAY-Z present material that is not only culturally relevant but also serves as a guide to these newcomers is truly iconic. 4:44 is a reminder to all hip-hop fans that JAY-Z is a leader to listen to. A small investment of the listener’s time yields an important and influential return; maybe this is a subconscious lesson Mr. Carter is trying to teach us.
Song lyrics from Genius.com.