From the moment JAY-Z’s much-hyped post-retirement album Kingdom Come dropped in 2006, its atmospheric closing song, “Beach Chair,” a duet with Coldplay frontman Chris Martin, proved divisive. Day-one fans who waited three years to hear their hero rap like a big emo about angels and having a midlife crisis over a Coldplay chillwave instrumental were none too pleased. Critics were also confused, with Rolling Stone bluntly stating: “You know how bad you think it is? It’s that bad.” Pitchfork described the song as “strange to the point of discomfort.”
Fourteen years later, with the benefit of hindsight, “Beach Chair” feels a lot less like a peculiar outlier in JAY-Z’s catalog and more like one of his more powerful moments—a moment that paved the way for the second act of his career.
First, though, we must look backward. On 2003’s The Black Album, JAY-Z perfected the hustler-turned-rap-mogul dynamic. The buoyant Brooklyn emcee blessed the grandiose production with slick bars sent directly from his perch on rap’s Mt. Olympus. The album was the perfect gangster rap fade-to-black “finale,” like Carlito’s victory parade had he actually made it out of Grand Central Terminal. By comparison, the more sparse Kingdom Come paints JAY-Z in a fragile, tormented light.
Over its bloated 60 minutes, JAY-Z transitions from clumsily lauding being a middle-aged man (“30 Something”) to complaining he doesn’t get enough respect (“Dig A Hole”) from rap’s young pretenders. In the past, even when spitting about the hardships he overcame as a drug dealer, JAY-Z gave off an aura of invincibility. On his ninth studio album, however, JAY-Z is far more naked with his emotions and a lot more downbeat with his vocal delivery (see the underrated “Minority Report”), which many people, understandably, might have found jarring at the time. Although Kingdom Come is nowhere near as bad as its reputation suggests, it was the first time JAY-Z sounded unsure of himself. Wounded, even.
Arguably, the song that best illustrates the shift on Kingdom Come to a more vulnerable space is “Beach Chair”—a dour, experimental diary entry with an introspective approach to songwriting. On “Beach Chair,” JAY-Z is having an existential crisis in real-time, giving us an insight into the regrets permeating within his subconscious. In between soberly questioning our existence and wondering whether his future children might end up paying for their father’s sins (an early hint the rapper was struggling with guilt, and something explored in greater detail on 2017’s 4:44), he raps powerfully: “Went from having shabby clothes to crossing over Abbey Road.”
This bar is a warm anecdote that breathes fresh life into JAY-Z’s already established rags-to-riches story. However, the fact his then girlfriend Beyoncé directly follows this bar with the question “Are you happy, Hov?” suggests something is still tormenting her other half. It’s an indication that all is not well in paradise, and that all the money in the world cannot erase the deep-seated traumas of JAY-Z’s past.
Throughout the song’s five minutes, the rapper sounds vulnerable and fraught with emotion, but this only adds more soul to the music, making an obviously flawed JAY-Z feel far more human and relatable than previous iterations. With its fidgety drums, evocative strings, and a distorted sitar that eerily whistles through the wind, “Beach Chair” sounds like an airy dream only a few steps away from descending into a nightmare. It’s probably the weirdest beat JAY-Z has ever rapped over. Yet the fact it’s such a fragmented piece of music also speaks directly to the rapper’s scattered emotions. Musically, it’s a beautiful mess, an extension, perhaps, of where Shawn Carter found himself back in 2006.
Not everything works. The song’s indulgent references to angels, as well as the ethereal chanting by Martin on the hook, will still alienate just as many people as they impress. Yet, by working with the British singer and implementing a more psychedelic, alternative sound, JAY-Z cemented his connection with mainstream white audiences, whom back in 2006, viewed Coldplay—fresh off winning two Brit Awards and releasing the commercial smash X&Y—like a kitten sees catnip.
“Beach Chair” further underlines JAY-Z’s legacy and reach as a pop culture icon, while making his move to headlining traditionally white-dominated festivals like Glastonbury a hell of a lot easier. It was a successful chess move in a career packed full of them. Too, it was proof JAY-Z wasn’t afraid to take bold risks musically, backing up the song’s claim that one reason he had reached the top is by “not being afraid to fall out of the sky.”
JAY-Z could have easily just made The Black Album Part 2, but by making a record like “Beach Chair” instead, he showed a commitment to experimentation and growth that very few rappers maintain later on in their careers.
It’s worth noting the ageism that existed in rap in 2006, with the biggest song in the streets (The Game’s “One Blood”) famously containing a bar that mocked the very existence of rappers in their late 30s. This makes Hov coming to grips with his mortality (on “Beach Chair,” he ponders: “My physical is a shell so when I say farewell / My soul will find an even higher plane to dwell”) feel particularly brave.
“Beach Chair” gave JAY-Z the confidence and platform to write music from a much more inward-looking place, acting as the forbearer to the brutally honest confessional raps that would later light up the emotive 4:44. It laid the foundations for soul-bearing tracks such as the Kanye West and Jay Electronica collaborations “New Day” and “A.P.I.D.T.A,” as well as the cleansing “Young Forever” and “Marcy Me.” “Beach Chair” was the moment JAY-Z finally let go of his youth, marking his journey into the philosophical elder statesman we celebrate today.
Functioning as an epic piece of cathartic self-therapy, “Beach Chair” is JAY-Z setting out his emotional blueprint and life mantra (“I’m not afraid of dying / I’m afraid of not trying”), so his unborn daughter has something to get to know her father by in the future. It feels like putting a letter in a bottle and throwing it out to sea, aware the message inside must pack the same emotional punch when it’s finally opened and consumed.
The beach chair seems to represent watching the waves while being alone with your thoughts, working your way through your regrets, hoping to turn them into an enduring strength. JAY-Z is hopeful his daughter will later share the same clarity of thought, finding her very own beach chair and continuing her father’s journey onto a path of self-actualization. Only then will this song have served its purpose.