The US rap icon has never been shy about his success. He’s spent the last thirteen albums bragging about how he’s made it. Whilst there’s no denying his accomplishments as a rapper and businessman, his more recent albums have started to feel like a broken record. Magna Carta Holy Grail was pretty much nothing but him harking on about the money and expensive paintings that he owns. We get it Jay-Z, you’re richer than us.
Expecting 4:44 to be more repetitive rodomontade, I was certainly shocked by what followed. Jay-Z has toned things down quite a notch. In fact, he’s done more than that – he’s torn the arrogant façade entirely away.
The opening track ‘Kill Jay Z’ is pretty much an unfiltered and savage diss track aimed at himself. Gone is the glitzy production, replaced by spliced soul sampling and a crappy microphone. It’s raw and intimate and self-deprecating - pretty much every adjective that I would have never associated with the rapper.
This song sets the tone for the born again humble Jay-Z that follows. If ‘Kill Jay Z’ wasn’t exposed enough, ‘4:44’ (the song everyone’s been talking about) serves as a complete outpouring of shame regarding his rumoured affair – not only does he admit to it but publicly apologise for it letting his flow disintegrate as the song turns into a deep confession. I didn’t think there was an honourable way to address infidelity, but Jay-Z has done it.
Not all of the album is utter self-loathing. In fact, he’s back to bragging about his fucking paintings on the ‘story of OJ’ – the only difference here is that he justifies his pride. The song delves into the fact that all African Americans descend from slaves, and therefore achieving what he has achieved is pretty damn great and worth bragging about. It’s more of a poignant statement on black success than his success alone.
Meanwhile, the likes of ‘Legacy’ explore fatherhood in a way that isn’t ordinarily cringeworthy on a hip hop record, instead exploring the idea of giving what his parents couldn’t give. ‘Family Feud’ and ‘Moonlight’ meanwhile explore generational differences as he looks upon the current rap game as an old hip hop head, laying the barbed bars we’ve always loved from the rapper: ‘please don’t talk about guns/ that you ain’t never gon’ use’.
Whilst the likes of Kanye have seemingly become more obscure and less relatable by pushing arrogance to comical extremes, Jay-Z has marched defiantly in the opposite direction, coming across more human than ever whilst still keeping glimmers of his old charm through wordplay and humour when appropriate (e.g. ‘I’m not black, I’m O.J… okay?’). It’s the best version of Hova we’ve heard in years.