It’s been a little over five years since the release of Jay-Z’s 13th studio album, 4:44. While a lot has changed since its 2017 release, it remains one of hip-hop’s most essential albums to date.
Some say the best part of a story is in its ending. The middle of the 2010s was a period of stirring for Shawn Carter. At the time, he had been coming to terms with changing dynamics in his life, like his marriage to one of the most successful artists ever, fatherhood in his mid-40s, and his place in a game that was changing at a frenetic pace with new artists and sounds taking hold of the culture he moved forward in a bygone era.
When 4:44 dropped, Jay-Z was far from being a public fave, owing to his role as the primary muse of Beyoncé’s seminal work, Lemonade. In the album, the songstress artfully laid bare his infidelity and dissected intimate details of their union in ways never-before thought possible for the notoriously private power couple.
Lemonade became a high point for Beyonce, heralded for its cohesion and vulnerability in detailing the Black woman experience. Unfortunately for Jay, in her attempts to humanize her husband despite his misgivings in their relationship, the album had the unintended effect of antagonizing the legendary Brooklyn emcee – something the BeyHive took to heart for years.
Among other notable spats at the time, 4:44 came during a rift with long-time producer and collaborator, Kanye West. High off the cultural and commercial success of both The Life of Pablo album and the ‘Yeezy’ Season 3 fashion collection, the simmering feud between the Watch The Throne co-stars came to the fore when Ye appeared to call Jay out during an on-stage rant on the Saint Pablo tour.
This would prove key because, since the early 2000s, Kanye had produced most of Jay-Z’s best work and had a defining influence on the icon’s longevity. Amid the backdrop of Jay’s previous album, the middling attempt of rap-as-fine-art in 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, the god emcee had a point to prove – and he was to do it without Ye’s trusted creative direction.
But instead of proving his growing base of detractors wrong, Jay took the opposite approach on 4:44 – instead opting to take accountability, speaking earnestly and unshackling himself from the bondage of being Jay-Z.
This is the first time we heard a full-length project from Shawn Carter. It was different from the larger-than-life persona known for legendary battles with the greatest emcees or his shrewd business acumen that made him both the businessman and the business. Rather, it was the deepest thoughts of a man going through a midlife crisis, caught in our collective eyes as something he no longer desired to be.
Through his near-divorce experience, Shawn realized the pain living up to being Jay-Z meant for those he loves, and ultimately reached an extreme but justified conclusion: He had to “Kill Jay Z”.
From the first track of the aforementioned title, we’re greeted with his trademark witticisms over smooth No ID production. Shawn details all the issues of the day: From his public persona to his infidelity and what it almost cost him (“let the baddest girl in the world get away”) to his aforementioned strained relations with Kanye.
As the album progresses, Shawn doubles down on sharing personal truths on his terms and looks at life as an ageing Black man with capitalist ambitions in America. Tracks like “The Story of O.J.” and Frank Ocean-assisted “Caught In Their Eyes” would become cult classics for interrogating Black celebrity culture is refreshingly honest ways.
The album also delivered powerful watershed moments for Jay-Z’s discography. Highlights in this regard include discussing his reaction to his mother’s coming out in “Smile”, and his modern-day “Song Cry” on the title track.
No ID’s lo-fi production sets the mood throughout the project, but on the song “4:44”, the sample functions as part of the story being told, with lines like “I’m never gonna treat you like I should” used more like a feature than a sample.
Elsewhere, Damian Marley shines in “Bam” – the only time Shawn puts on the HOV persona throughout the album for a dancehall-inspired banger. Tracks like “Moonlight”, where he lampoons the flows of the day, while simultaneously decrying modern blaxploitation, show Jay-Z at his nimble best.
However, album closer “Legacy” is the most important moment on the album. The song starts with Blue Ivy asking, “Daddy, what’s a will?” and an audibly distraught Jay-Z bequeathing his wealth to his family and looking back at his life and ethos. For the first time in his storied career, Jay-Z earnestly approaches his mortality.
Everything about the track harkens to the end. From Jay’s reluctant and subdued delivery, to the chopped sample at the end of the track that suggests that: “Some day, we’ll all be free”. “Legacy” is to Shawn Carter what the restaurant scene was to Tony Soprano.
And just like that, he was gone. While it wasn’t the last time we heard from Jay-Z – he’d make a joint-album rounding out his marital saga in 2018, then heavily assisting Jay Electronica’s A Written Testimony – 4:44 was the real-time the death of a legend and the rebirth of a better man.
JAY-Z’s 4:44 album was released on July 7, 2017 via S. Carter Enterprises and Roc Nation, listen to the seminal album below!
Words by Cedric Dladla // Photography by Raven B Varona