Just how deep does JAY-Z’s relationship run with the number 444? Not only did Hov reveal that he woke up at 4:44 a.m. to “write” the title track of his latest album, but just last week, we learned that the top-floor club at The Standard High Line hotel in New York, where Solange and JAY-Z had their infamous elevator altercation, bears the same number in its address: 444.
But what if JAY-Z’s connection to the number runs even deeper?
Recently, I was reading Ralph Ellison’s classic novel Invisible Man, which recounts the story of a nameless narrator who—as an African-American—remains unseen by the white world he encounters on a daily basis.
In the book’s climactic chapter, the narrator’s friend, Tod Clifton, is shot down by police, and the narrator becomes acutely aware of his and every African-American’s invisibility in American history as told by the white world:
All things, it is said, are duly recorded— all things of importance, that is. But not quite, for actually it is only the known, the seen, the heard and only those events that the recorder regards as important that are put down, those lies his keepers keep their power by.
After realizing how history is told—and whose history is told—the narrator considers all of the invisible African-Americans in this nation, and wonders, “Who knew but that they were the saviors, the true leaders, the bearers of something precious?” Amidst this realization, the narrator realizes his responsibility in bringing their stories forth: “They were outside the groove of history, and it was my job to get them in, all of them.”
With the narrator acutely aware of his role in history, the chapter concludes as he ends his reflection with the following passage:
I felt responsible. All our work had been very little, no great change had been made. I’d been so fascinated by the motion that I’d forgotten to measure what it was bringing forth. I’d been asleep, dreaming.
Okay, so what does any of this have to do with JAY-Z and 4:44? For starters, the last few lines of Chapter 20 in Ellison’s novel end on... wait for it... page 444.
It might seem crazy to believe that JAY-Z would—in addition to all of the other connections made to the number 444—connect his new album with a specific page number in Ellison’s 1952 novel, and yet, when breaking down the themes of 4:44, it’s no more of a stretch than any of the other connections, and possibly more significant.
Compare the realization made by Ellison’s narrator—that motion made him overlook what was being made—to JAY-Z’s reflection on Black artistry in “Moonlight”:
Fuck what we sellin’ / Fuck is we makin’? / ‘Cause their grass is greener / ‘Cause they always raking in more
Since purchasing TIDAL in January 2015, JAY-Z has worked to uplift Black artists, proudly claiming majority ownership over the only Black-owned on-demand streaming service. Much of 4:44 contains wisdom about Black capitalism and furthering the independence of Black artists. On “Smile,” Jay even states his purpose in owning TIDAL, when citing artists who pull their music from the service: “Ah, what did I do?/ ‘Cept try to free you?”
Throughout Invisible Man, Ellison’s narrator focuses on eyes—particularly white eyes—and their blindness to him. In the opening paragraph of the prologue, he notes, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” Similarly, JAY-Z continues to face resistance from the likes of Apple Music and Spotify, who allegedly spent millions on a “smear campaign” against TIDAL. A refusal to recognize the symbolism of his position is something Ellison’s narrator warns of, explaining that invisibility means “you’re always being bumped against by those with poor vision.”
It seems more than a coincidence, then, that Frank Ocean, who claimed his independence last year when he broke free from his recording contract with Def Jam to self-release Blonde, is featured on the song “Caught Their Eyes,” in which Jay uses the symbol of eyes to wax poetic about recognition.
I sat down with Prince eye to eye / He told me his wishes before he died / Now Londell McMillan, he must be colorblind / They only see green through them purple eyes / They eyes hide, they eyes high / My eyes wide shut to all the lies / These industry n—s, they always been fishy / But ain’t no Biggie, no lazy eye, huh
Citing the now-infamous incident wherein, after Prince’s death, his estate claimed JAY-Z and Prince had made no formal arrangement to host the late artist’s music exclusively on TIDAL, Jay speaks to a lack of true recognition for honoring the wishes of Black artists. Jay is able to see Prince as a human, eye to eye, but Prince’s lawyer, Londell McMillan, only sees Prince as a source of profit, thereby dehumanizing him.
And, of course, the song title itself, “Caught Their Eyes,” could very well indicate that Jay and Frank are aware of the threat they pose to a historically white industry that has long profited on Black artistry while white businessmen claim higher profits as the top label heads. As JAY-Z raps on “Moonlight,” “I don’t pose no threat on the Internet / I just pose a threat.” Or, as Ellison’s narrator puts it, “I’d make my invisibility felt if not seen.”
“Caught Their Eyes” is just one of several records on 4:44 where JAY-Z employs the idea of sight as a means of recognition and realization of growth. Beyond white industry heads, Jay pays careful attention to fully seeing each of his family members. On the album title track, Jay claims it took his “daughter being born, [to] see through a woman’s eyes,” a nod to a moment in time that made him fully understand the harm he had caused his wife Beyoncé. And on “Legacy,” he tells Blue Ivy “you gon’ let ‘em see” your Black excellency.
Short of confirmation from the man himself, there’s no way to know if JAY-Z was thinking about Invisible Man while making 4:44, or if the album title is indeed an Easter egg-esque nod to the page number in Ellison’s book when his narrator shares his realization, but there is no doubt that the themes and symbols of Invisible Man only serve to deepen the lyrics on Jay’s latest offering.
4:44 is meant to offer a more complex picture of the man Shawn Carter—not JAY-Z, the rapper—who both lectures on new means of freedom for Black artists and pens an emotional personal letter to his family. By recording the struggle of his community and his family, Jay ensures that his life and many contributions will be inscribed in “the groove of history.”
If a predominantly white music industry is going to reduce JAY-Z to the poignant hook on 4:44 standout “The Story of O.J.,” and if many listeners only care to gossip about his personal family drama, all JAY-Z can do is follow Ellison’s narrator in trying “to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through.”
Let historians tell their version of events, and you might miss some of the greatest stories of our time. Let JAY-Z tell it, though, and you might begin to truly see.