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Ego Death: How JAY-Z Found His Most Vulnerable Voice on '4:44'

Sometimes, the biggest obstacle is the man in the mirror.
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What you about to witness is my thoughts / Just my thoughts, man—right or wrong / Just what I was feeling at the time / You ever felt like this, vibe with me / Walk with a nigga man, just vibe with me — JAY-Z 

“The Ruler’s Back” wasn’t just a song title paying homage to Slick Rick, but a classic album opener bringing to the throne an invincible conqueror. JAY-Z carries himself like Luke Cage meets Alexander The Great, an unstoppable force in every way. He’s always had that mysterious air about him as if there was no way to penetrate his armor. It’s the reason why I’m so stunned by the intro to 4:44, a self-evaluation so critical that it's like Achilles contemplating stabbing his own heel to cleanse the sins. We truly get to witness his thoughts in a way unlike any other. There are no grandiose horns or benevolent drums; this isn’t a ruler returning but an emperor shedding all his old clothes.

Killing JAY-Z was the only way Shawn Carter could speak openly and honestly. It took casting away the very ego he once wore as a crown to unlock the seal keeping all these thoughts and emotions buried. He took it back to stabbing Un; just the mere mention cut me deeper than the knife he used that night. That’s one confession I never thought would be said in this lifetime. Even his statement about egging on Solange, acknowledging how he further influenced the friction that unfolded in the elevator. “You can’t heal what you never reveal” is a piercing lyric, and the moment he begins to vomit his truth as if the recording booth was a drunk therapy session.

Revealing to heal seems to be the mission statement for 4:44. Not only healing his own heart but by examining where he has fallen short in the past, the very men and women who look up to him can learn and cherish these lessons. Hov said he sold crack so we wouldn’t have to, and now he’s giving game that will hopefully allow us to see the power in vulnerability and crushing the ego in the name of growth.

4:44 wants to highlight how blessings can be born from pain, that hard knock lessons will make you better if you accept them as lessons and not just trials that must be overcome. It took a bit of pain for him to see his wrongs. Mistakes made him a better man. Jay has been working toward this maturity since Kingdom Come, even though he had the mindset that there was no emotional connection to his wealthy rapper half. JAY-Z has never been richer, he’s boasting about being a billionaire, but the entire album is still relatable to even the most quarter-searching couch potato. This isn’t the rap album belittling you for what you don’t have, but saying you can have this too.

Acceptance is a theme of 4:44 that’s handled in an introspective way. Jay is constantly looking back at all his wrongdoings and admitting why they were wrong. There’s a lyric on “The Story of O.J.” that grabbed me—of course, the deeper context of the song should shine brightest, but I couldn’t help but be in awe of “I bought every V12 engine, wish I could take it back to the beginning.” He finishes the verse explaining how investing in Dumbo, an up-and-coming neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY, would’ve been a more lucrative decision. This is the same man who made “Imaginary Player,” one of the greatest examples of arrogant bravado in American history:

And now you got these young cats acting like they slung caps / All in they dumb rap, talking about how they funds stack / When I see them in the street, I don't see none of that / Damn playboy, where the fuck is the Hummer at? / Where is all the ice with all the platinum under that?

He goes through each verse on "Imaginary Player" looking down upon other rappers who aren’t drinking better, who aren’t riding bigger, and whose diamonds twinkle while his shine―materialism galore. That’s who JAY-Z was, proud of everything that money brought him. The JAY-Z on 4:44 once again reinvents bragging, so happy to be making investments that don’t depreciate but double in value as time spins. Just listens to his tone on “Legacy,” a fatherly warmth of a man holding an angel in his lap and telling her the world is hers. He now brags about how all this money will be passed down, allowing a financial freedom to his family and children that he never had growing up. This is a dad who was allowed a second chance not only to be a family man but to pass down mature decisions to others. We all know that good credit is better than making it rain in Magic City, but has a rapper ever said it?

On his sophomore album, T.I. confronts himself on “T.I. vs. T.I.P.” Hearing him have an internal conflict allows listeners to comprehend the struggle of separating the man he was and the man he was becoming. The drastic change in his lifestyle created a split in personalities, a gentleman trying to best the music industry versus the former drug dealer who can’t let go of keeping it real.

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JAY-Z's story is a similar one, but he made a transition in ways T.I. couldn’t fathom. Jay kept it silent, maneuvering the industry as if the rap game was no different than the crack game—hence the stabbing of Un. But he adjusted, traded throwbacks for tailored suits and became more of a CEO than just another rapper. He continued down the road of an emotionless hustler even as his life got better, giving only glimmers of who he was outside the boasting and bragging.

Unlike T.I., "Kill Jay-Z" finds Shawn killing off his other self rather than continuing to coexist. Maturity is a form of letting go of childish ways and for Jay, maturity is becoming more open, honest, and reflective.

JAY-Z doesn’t stay dead, though, he makes a grand return on “Bam” as vicious as we've ever heard him. He came back to remind Shawn why JAY-Z was necessary for their survival. Jay is the one who hustled on those blocks, how they survived the coldest winters. “Sometimes you need your ego to remind these fools.” Being vulnerable means taking off your armor and remaining invincible. “Bam” is the return of the ruler, if just for a moment. There’s very little duality between Jay and Shawn on 4:44 but there’s no need for Jay to have a voice, this is Shawn’s album.

I’m predicting a thousand articles will be written contrasting “Song Cry” and “4:44,” two of Hov’s most touching records. What I love most about maturity can be found in the last verse of “Song Cry”:

That's your fault, how many times you forgiven me? / How was I to know that you was plain sick of me? / I know the way a nigga livin' was whack / But you don't get a nigga back like that! / Shit, I'm a man with pride, you don't do shit like that / You don't just pick up and leave and leave me sick like that / You don't throw away what we had, just like that / I was just fuckin' them girls, I was gon' get right back / They say you can't turn a bad girl good / But once a good girl's gone bad, she's gone forever / I'll mourn forever / Shit, I've got to live with the fact I did you wrong forever

He’s blaming this woman for forgiving all of his wrongdoings. She was supposed to wait—the cheating didn’t warrant her to move on—he was coming right back. He closes the verse promising to mourn her forever as if the guilt would plague him until the earth ends. He didn’t believe it because he didn’t fight for her. He just moved on to do wrong elsewhere.

Married Shawn Carter, however, the husband with three kids, you can feel his hurt. You can feel that his wrongdoings weren't a blemish but a haunting scar that burned. It’s as if he suddenly was aware of consequence, that his world was about to crumble. “I would probably die with all this shame” and “My heart breaks for the day I had to explain my mistakes” are so much more heart-wrenching than “I've got to live with the fact I did you wrong forever.” Because one just lacks the painful sincerity of having to own up and face your mistakes rather than moving on. Hov Shawn is emotionless no more.

JAY-Z reminded us that he is still a mortal man. He is flawed, but he admits these flaws with a sense of clarity that you only obtain once facing the consequences of your actions. This is the dad-rap, grown-man album that evolution allowed him to make. Not as an artist but as a man. We never stop growing old but we can cease to grow up. Luckily for hip-hop, JAY-Z is still here to share his maturation.

4:44 is many things, but it begins and ends with Jay killing off his ego. It’s such an important message, too. We have to remember that sometimes, the biggest obstacle is the man in the mirror.

By Yoh, aka The Maturation Of J-Yohva aka @Yoh31



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