JAY-Z is a quiet man.
He is proof that a giant can walk without making the earth shake. He is proof that when a giant decides to stomp, the earth will tremble. His name has been causing quite the stir these last few weeks without him even saying a word. The hip-hop populace has been in a frenzy over an album without any promotion from its author. Revealing JAY-Z was releasing new music was enough to throw the industry off its axis. That’s the power of Hov, a legend amongst legends, a king with the highest throne. In an era of overexposure, he has given us next to nothing but we await his arrival with fervent excitement.
Giving nothing isn’t new to Jay. When all the rappers were opening their home to MTV Cribs, no cameras entered the house of Hov. When Instagram and Snapchat became industry standards of visual connection, Jigga didn’t create profiles so the world could watch him through a 12-megapixel cell phone lens. He will spontaneously promote through Twitter, but the microblog is a marketing platform and not home to idle thoughts and random tangents. The only time his Twitter didn’t seem professionally curated was during his stream of shout-outs after being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and even that ended with a brag-worthy speech from Obama. With all this said, 4:44, his newly-released 13th studio album, hasn’t caused Jay to break his silence.
Beyoncé is the queen of unexpected albums. Seeing the success of Beyoncé and Lemonade likely proved to Jay that he didn’t need promo videos during the NBA Finals to create anticipated awareness. Part of me sees this approach as a desire to allow the music to speak. He didn’t want to run radio with another “Tom Ford.” My gut tells me the lack of a single is due to the desire to keep the album's theme a secret. Even the short snippet for “Adnis”—which doesn't appear on the album—stops before uncovering too much.
It all feels calculated, baiting us, drawing us in without much effort―the album was a moment before it was released. Even my wavering excitement has become full-fledged anxiety. New JAY-Z means he will be the talk of the town. Even if he doesn’t rule the summer, he’ll conquer the entire weekend. 4:44 is Christmas in July; JAY-Z is the gift-bearing Saint Nick.
There are far more questions than answers surrounding the new project. Why all the 4s? Will this be a response to Beyoncé’s Lemonade? Is he giving bars to Drake and Kanye? Will he finally tell us what happened on that elevator? Does Hov still have “it”???? So many questions, but at this very moment, I’m cherishing the confusion and thrill of not knowing.
Not since Kendrick's DAMN. in April has it felt like the entire hip-hop world was all watching the minutes tick by. You never know how many more albums Jay has left. He just added twins to his growing family. Being a husband to his extraordinary wife, and running countless businesses―a life this full doesn't leave room for an album every year anymore. Even after a lukewarm project like Magna Carta Holy Grail, there is no one like JAY-Z in all of hip-hop. There will never be another Jay, so in the midst of dissecting his every lyric and debating if it’s classic or trash, remember to cherish our legend while he’s still with us.
I think Drake said it best:
I never cried when Pac died / But I probably will when Hov does / And if my tears hold value then I would drop one / For every single thing he showed us / And I'll be standing in a puddle
In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules are the same: no skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding and no stopping. Each song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish. The D'usse is poured and my heart is racing, lets begins.
1. "Kill Jay Z"
This sounds big. A big loop. Jay’s voice. He’s speaking in the third person about killing JAY-Z. I can’t tell if this his internal voice or someone criticizing him. He just mentioned shooting his own brother. Holy shit. He sounds tired, exhausted, and really deep in his feelings yet alive, focused, and ready to explode. A siren, it sounds like. These drums knock but are elegant, like an aggressive ballerina. Wait. What if this is Shawn Carter talking to JAY-Z? I feel like I’m watching him stare at himself in the mirror. My man is in a puddle of feelings. This is mad introspective. He doesn’t sound like he’s forcing it. The beat is building up. HE MENTIONED STABBING UN. Yo, this is the 47-year-old Jigga I always wanted. I don’t think I ever felt this deep in JAY-Z’s head. This is like if Jay did Kendrick’s “u” without the gun, hotel, or the weird yelling. I really like this beat. Enchanting production. He said “Bye JAY-Z.” WTF MAN. Shawn is taking over. Oh man. That was one hell of an intro. Best post-retirement intro, easy. Holy shit, man. Holy fucking shit. I’m glad he reminded us he stabbed a man at a Q-Tip listening party. Real savage.
2. "The Story of O.J."
That was short but thrilling. Okay, Jay brought the samples back baby. This is a groove. The keys are dancing, a woman's voice is being looped. Deep kicks. “My skin is black” is what the sample is saying. Nah, this is definitely something Jay hasn’t rapped over in years—if ever. Okay! So Jay’s voice is ridiculous. He doesn’t sound like himself. There’s a weight to his tone, his voice hasn’t been very high-pitched but this is a what you get when you drink heavy because you've been sleeping on the couch and your wife took the kids to her momma house that hate you kind of rasp to his voice. “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” WHATTTTT. He’s talking about being a house/field nigga. An interesting juxtaposition. Production feels like time traveling in a DeLorean with Dilla. No I.D.! I like this. A lot of game is being spit. His flow is so easy, but also sounds like he’s disappointed in someone. Yo. He’s speaking, said that credit is better than throwing money at the strip club. HAAAAA. I never heard Jay talk about his money like this, not braggadocious but like a father passing on lessons. The biggest lesson is that no matter how big he gets, he’s still a nigga. Talking about his art collection gaining worth over time that he’ll be able to pass on to his daughter. Yo! There ARE these sparse drums that pop up like Bruh Man from the 5th Floor that’s absolutely soul-tingling. Criticizing the kids flashing cash on the 'Gram. He sounds like an old rapper—he is an old rapper. Here for it. JAY-Z over soul beats might be better than Hov on horns. Good song, better overall message. This is good.
3. "Smile" ft. Gloria Carter
Y'all know if Hov brought mom it’s already lit. OHHHHHH WE ON SOME TRAP SOUL. YOU NOT READY FOR HOW QUICK IT HITS. This is getting crunk at church music. When that drop hits, it’s like the holy ghost entering a party. This flow, Hov! Speedy, with the slow up. Hov’s mom is a lesbian? WHATTTTTT. This is beautiful. Okay, this is the first song with a real hook and even that was a little off. This is a Stevie Wonder sample, I believe. I’m about to start crying because this is sounding SO GOOD. I don’t know why, but all the age that felt like it weighed down Magna Carta has evaporated. This is a rejuvenated rapper. *Sips D’usse*. He just saluted Jimmy Iovine. Nah, this is father Hov but he’s definitely aggressive with the talk. Not really rappity rap wordplay but a dragon just breathing the most elegant fire. THIS IS FIRE. He’s sharper than a black panther’s claws. THIS ENTIRE VERSE. Gloria! He fucking ripped that verse. Gloria is blessing us with the gospel. Let a tear drop if you have to. This is black excellence music. Black superhero music. Black love music.
4. "Caught Their Eyes" ft. Frank Ocean
When Jay is talking his shit, there is nothing like it. Banging on garbage pans with lightning bolts drums. Nice drop. Has a Nas going back to Africa in Belly kind of vibe. Jay with a melody play. Slow. It’s almost a whisper. I don’t know if this works with the beat, another soul loop but he seems to be dancing in between the beat. He’s shooting at targets. Yo. I’m pretty sure this is about Drake. Jay wants to make it plain and simple why they aren’t the same. I loved the way he broke down his difficult upbringing. Funeral talk. Frank doesn’t really sound like himself, as if they sped up his vocals a bit. “I sat down with Prince eye to eye.” OH SHIT. He just threw shots at Prince's estate. Jay attacking with the rifle and knife out. He’s coming for the throat, Solid Snake maneuvers. I feel like the second verse worked much better than the first. I don’t love this Frank hook. It just feels... forced. He’s not in conjunction with the beat. He’s singing but it feels underneath the beat like I got my ear pressed to the door to hear someone singing in the shower. Both verses were Mobster-eloquent hits. Not hit records but red dot hits. A rapper is going to be in his feelings when he hears the first verse, no more side eyes. KEEP THAT SAME ENERGY.
Five songs in, so far no skips. JAY-Z came with a shit list of topics to get off his chest. A woman’s voice. I don’t know if this is a sample but she has the voice of a mermaid. You’ll get it when you hear it. Building up to a loop. No I.D. is fucking killing it. OH MY!!! THE WAY HE BUILT IT UP! IT FEELS LIKE I JUST GOT LAUNCHED TO THE TABERNACLE! HIGH NOTE TICKLING THE BOTTOM OF JESUS' SANDELS. LET'S GO!!!! READY TO CRY IN THE CLUB. Drums sound good. This is good. JAY-Z just apologized for womanizing, BIG PIMPIN' IS DEAD. This is like when Will Smith gave Carlton his little black book on The Fresh Prince. This is about JAY-Z chasing Beyoncé around Paris. Wait. THIS IS THE STORY OF HOW THEY GOT TOGETHER. BEYONCÉ STILLBORNS. DOG. DOG. EVERY SINGLE LINE IS BRINGING US INTO A ROOM WE HAVE NEVER ENTERED. THIS IS LIKE A SNAPCHAT THROUGH THEIR PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH THIS SOULFUL ANGEL SINGING IN THE BACKGROUND. Yo. The song won’t have to cry this time. There’s something about Hov’s tone, he is in his feelings. Second verse is going to be the relationship goal captions for men. So many relationships will be saved due to these lyrics being used in text messages. Jay mentioning the kids. “I’ll probably die with all this shame.” Jay said something about a threesome, man, there was TWO Beckys with good hair. I’m emotional. I'mma blame the alcohol. This is a song so personal I don’t think I’m supposed to hear it. Almost convinced they uploaded the wrong album, there is no way this is meant to be on here. The horns BLEW at the end. Hov on horns >>>>>
6. "Family Feud"
Dog. There is no JAY-Z song that is that emotionally honest and revealing. JESUS. Another looped sample. Jay picking on someone in the studio. He’s lively and joking. This album is a rush. Dog, this song sample. It feels like angels are Harlem shaking on my shoulders and humming their favorite song. Okay, this flow sounds a bit aged but it's a mature Hov. “No one wins when the family feud.” Getting some… I JUST LAUGHED OUT LOUD. “There’s no such thing as an ugly billionaire, I’m cute.” FAM. Jay is hilarious. This is like if “Imaginary Player” was made for dads. SON. JAY IS CLOWNING. THIS IS THE CHURCH OF HOV. WAS THAT BEYONCÉ VOCALS? HOV ON SOUL SAMPLES IS SUPERMAN. He just mentioned Becky, dammit. We really got a response to Lemonade and it’s wonderful. He just mentioned Al Sharpton taking selfies in the mirror, when was this recorded??? Shout out to Ant who just texted me saying Hov’s soul samples are smoother than D’usse’s aftertaste. Asshole, they are smoother than drinking white Hennessy on jet skis in the Bahamas though. #Facts.
7. "Bam" ft. Damian Marley
I’m really levitating. I’m not even in my seat, I haven’t been since Jay mentioned shooting his brother. I’m shook. Sounds like Street Fighter samples. I don’t know, it's strange. Damian Marley sounding like an African prince. OHHHHH THAT BASS. “JAY ARRIVED TO SAY FUCK IT ALL." Nah. He just split Shawn Carter and Hov. He’s talking SHIT! And the bass is kicking my chest like he sampled Chun-Li. It’s crazy that we never got a Shawn Carter vs. Hov album after Huster vs. The Problem and T.I. vs. T.I.P. Sometimes you need your ego. "Before we had A&Rs and we had ARs too.” There is no one like Jay, man, he is POPPING OFF! Jay sound like he going to be in the next Black Panther as a mobster. Bobby Shmurda reference. AMAZING. “Niggas are skipping leg day just to run their mouth.” I JUST DIED. Nah man. This is old school Hov. This is a man ready to press wigs. This is keep that energy when you see me. Damian's voice is lifting the record even higher. This is like when Lil Wayne did “RappaPomPom” with Junior Reid. NO I.D. IS CATCHING BODIES WITH THIS PRODUCTION. That’s soulful mafia music.
JAY-Z about to make the Chiron soundtrack. Another soulful one. My ears are warm. He’s doing some light singing. I feel like I know this sample but my mind is racing. I’m not in love with his delivery. It’s too easygoing compared to the lively… WAIT. He’s getting into it now. “Stop walking around like y'all made Thriller.” Hov is grabbing kids by the collar. OG music. Okay. I like this. I like this a lot. “Y'all got the same fucking flows, I don’t know who is who.” Fam. I’ve fallen from my levitation and am rolling on the floor. Jay is being the old rapper with the FIRE IN HIS GUT. Kids better learn.
9. "Marcy Me"
These songs are short. Hov is getting in, talking shit, and getting out. Okay. This song sounds very easy. The loop is cool. Not sure what the sample is but it's full of fervor. Reminiscent Jay. I’m LOVING this verse. The keys are building up like they are challenging the rapper himself. A mentioned to Pam on Martin. Nah. This is a verse. He really took us back to Marcy with imagery from the '90s. Nah man. This doesn’t even sound like Hov is living in 2017. He’s talking about gentrification in Brooklyn. WHY IS THIS SO GOOD? These piano keys and Hov are taking us back. He shouted out the OG New York rapper. A woman singing. Nice tone. Guys. Clap for him.
I don’t want it to end. A child asking her dad what’s a will? Only No I.D. could’ve done this album, man. These chops and loops are crazy. Jay’s voice is light as a feather but moving like Jerry skating on Tom. This is a head-nodder. He’s talking to his family. Hov really is a family man. Okay the flow is much slower but he’s reminiscing, saying names. Family members are gonna be going crazy. It’s in his tone. The feeling. He’s such an old man, lounging. This is the victory lap. Talking about his father. Jay’s talking about his hate for religion because his father was a preacher. So wild, I never knew that. This flow is familiar. It’s not like Jay. A gift and curse reference. I really don’t want this album to end. Production is beautiful. This is family reunion music. Like group hug music. Someone hug me. Hov really put together a beautiful, honest album.
There’s something sad about this album coming to an end. It’s like when you see your uncle for the first time in years and you guys catch up properly. It’s that older, wiser perspective that you get lost in. When you hang on every word, downloading every gem that he gives. You don’t want it to end. Jay is giver of gems; there’s a Hov lyric for every situation in life. 4:44 is a mature dad album but from the cool uncle who gave you your first beer and let you drive his BMW before you had your license.
This is what Kingdom Come should’ve been, the dad-rap album that’s more introspective and reflective than fighting age and delving deeper into flaunting. Hov just seems comfortable enough with himself to share what is happening underneath the Yankee cap he made so famous.
On the first listen, this is much better than Magna Carta Holy Grail.
Give me Jay over the soul than the trap beats any day. It’s minimal but some surprisingly grandiose moments. It’s an album that makes you zoom in on the words and fully take in what he’s saying. Hov didn’t want us to sip the tea but drink the Kool-Aid. He pours a full glass that will quench any thirst wanting to hear JAY-Z really let his soul sing.
I still haven’t recovered from the mention of him shooting his brother, which hasn’t been referenced since Vol. 1. He dug deep for this one, even deeper than The Blueprint.
He just sounds so alive. The flow has been refreshed and the wordplay is still stellar. But it’s the honesty that really gives you perspective. What does a former drug dealer-turned-hip-hop billionaire sound like? 4:44 is that album. I’ve never seen JAY-Z’s house but 4:44 is like if MTV Cribs walked through his soul. Take a stroll and by the end, you’ll feel a little bit closer to the silent giant.
To be frank, this isn’t a JAY-Z album, this is Shawn Carter's album. And it's one hell of a debut.
Early Favorites: 1-10
Early Not-So-Favorites: ...
By Yoh, aka Y:OH, aka @Yoh31