Thursday, July 6, 2017

album review: '4:44' by jay-z

My first review on YouTube was originally going to be for Jay-Z's Magna Carta, Holy Grail.

Now granted, if you go back into my history my first review was actually Don't Look Down by Skylar Grey - not exactly an improvement - but that was a conscious choice on my part, because Jay-Z is not the sort of artist I tackle lightly. I've gone on the record as not being much of a Jay-Z fan - he's made his classics but he's also made a lot of lazy, overly commercial hits that coast more on presence and bravado than actual wordplay or insight, especially in recent years, and it has led to a lot of records I wish I liked a lot more than I do. And let's be very honest: Jay-Z the man has been eclipsed by Jay-Z the multi-millionaire icon entirely too often, both in his public persona and his art, and while his success would have made some of that inevitable, it's not like he's one to showcase something deeper or draw attention to details that would allow an audience to connect with more of his material.

Then Lemonade happened - and look, there's no way to even approach the conversation of this album without mentioning the moment where Beyonce cut loose and delivered the best record of her career - and again, I'm far from a Beyonce fan! It was the sort of accusation that rocked one of the most established institutions in mainstream music, you almost couldn't escape it. But just like with Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton, I was intensely curious to how Jay-Z would respond, or if he even could, given who he is and his place in hip-hop. Miranda Lambert owned the fact that she cheated, and it led to a drifting, intensely complicated picture over an experimental double album... whereas Jay seemed to be aiming smaller, maybe even more personal. A record not even reaching forty minutes, ten tracks, one producer with No I.D., a few intensely talented guest stars including his wife. There wasn't anything indulgent or meandering about this, which flew in the face of the majority of his grandiose material over the past decade, both on his own records and in guest verses - and yeah, there was no way I wasn't going to check this out. So what did I find on 4:44?

Honestly, I'm kind of glad I'm not a huge Jay-Z fan talking about this record - familiar with his legacy and discography, but also very conscious of my distance from it. And I really couldn't care less about Jay-Z's cult of personality - which I think is important to mention because my issues with 4:44 are very tied to issues I've had with Jay-Z for years now. And even saying that, I'll readily admit this is a great hip-hop record, easily his best in around a decade and reflecting a level of tightness and focus that has been absent Jay-Z's work for far too long. But more than that, it feels personal, and if you're looking for an element that will both reinvigorate the fanbase's interesting and get me engaged, it would be that.

So let's start with Jay-Z, where even he will admit on the first few songs of this record that people can't connect with his pain and past if he continues to hole up in an ivory tower and not face very real, very human demons. And thus it's a credit to his delivery that he does try to show more emotion in his flows - he sounds more tired and worldweary, the crags in his voice and his wry, low-key sense of humor coming through more. It would be easy to say this Jay-Z's midlife crisis record - to the extent any man with his level of fame and success can have a crisis, and we'll come back to this - but in reality it's older than that, the tones of a man who has come back to the brink, faced real consequences for his actions, and now is having to look forward and not really having a clear direction. He knows what he doesn't want to be - on songs like 'Bam' and 'Moonlight' he castigates older MCs who try to mimic current trends instead of embracing their age and position, along with younger rappers who are interchangeable and getting eaten up by the music industry - but in terms of what that future entirely looks like, Jay-Z is only starting to figure that out beyond his own success.

Of course, to some extent that success has always been something of an Achilles' heel when it comes to my liking of Jay-Z, or even his artistic evolution. Now more than ever Jay-Z is conscious that he's a role model of black success, not pandering to the religion and image like Al Sharpton or a veneer of respectability politics from Bill Cosby, but it's the level of that success that makes him seem disconnected at points. Take 'The Story Of O.J.', where he talks about buying real estate and paying down credit, and using his platform TIDAL to sell that aspirational message and move beyond a projected image of black worth defined by the system... and yet it's hard not to feel like Jay-Z is an ingrained part of that capitalist system, buying expensive art to flip at higher costs, or how he muses on not buying a building for two million when it's now worth twenty-five. These are not problems that vast majority of the world can remotely comprehend, and when you pair it with the whole 'this is how Jewish people own all the property in America'... look, I get the intent of your message but it's going to be misconstrued by your phrasing. But that's the thing with Jay-Z: he's always walked a narrow tightrope of justification of violence or what he did in his past to get to where he is, and thus when he's exasperated people will pirate his message in order to enrich themselves... well, there's an ironic parallel that I wish Jay-Z grasped as more than just jealousy. And the frustrating thing is that Jay-Z does have valid points surrounding investment and musicians owning their masters, one of the reasons his anger on lawyers graverobbing from Prince's estate on 'Caught Your Eyes' has such bite to it. And when Jay-Z does get personal and admit very human screwups on 'Kill Jay-Z' and especially the title track, it forges real connective tissue to the human drama. The crimes for which he never truly paid in his come-up, his wife's miscarriages and his cheating as a response of the emotional distance that now he's terrified his children will eventually discover - even if Jay-Z finding more value in women now that he's had kids is so utterly tired. Even the struggles of the black business owner facing a system that will seek to delegitimize or criminalize it, even through language of calling it the 'black market' or 'projects', those moments have aspirational weight and populism... which you start to lose when you brag about success and legacy that's beyond the pale. Now thankfully there's a lot less of that overall, and even when he's calling out jewelers on 'Smile' it's more for blood diamond robbery of the culture than luxury rap posturing, but again, part of this is a maturing process, with Jay-Z being comfortable stepping out of the shadows and admitting his flaws. Granted, he's got the luxury of being a billionaire which can undercut some of the stakes, but at his best, he makes it feel real.

And a big part of this ties back to technique, production, and the overall composition of these songs. I'll say it: Jay-Z has not sounded this on-point when it comes to a variety of flows and styles in years, and while he does rhyme too many words with themselves and can step into some shaky patterns I'm not crazy about, he's also got a real skill with layering his bars and on the majority of this project he does not sound lazy or complacent. Granted, that's helped by producer No I.D. not giving him the room or time to do so. I could talk more about how he gives Jay-Z a selection of great soul samples that are chopped just fine enough to have an unstable, urgent edge but clearly have the expensive touch - he samples Donny Hathaway, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Hannah Williams for an inspired title track hook, and even the Fugees - but what's more impressive is the runtime. Again, this is a tight album, ten tracks in less than forty minutes, and if anything feels indulgent it might a few of the outros, that's it. Granted, when you get Beyonce's layered vocals cooing over 'Family Feud' it's not precisely a bad thing, but I wasn't really all that crazy about the extended outro from Damian Marley on 'Bam', it wasn't really adding much to the song's bragging. There are a few other production nitpicks: I'm not really wild about how the vocal fidelity shifts midway through the second verse on 'Caught Their Eyes' - and incidentally, that film of Frank Ocean's hook didn't need to be there - or how the vocal tones behind 'Family Feud' can feel oddly rubbery at points, but otherwise, when you have songs so streamlined and stripped back, there isn't room for error, and whether it's Jay-Z toying with a modern triplet flow on 'Moonlight' before discarding it, or his very plainspoken moments trying to walk the line between greater responsibilities as a father and his own dark impulses, there's very little that feels indulgent or out of place - or forced, on that note, a snapshot of reality from Jay-Z that can't always feel as relatable or populist as it probably should because, especially at this point, his life very much isn't.

So yeah, while there are issues I have with this record - I've never been crazy about some of Jay-Z's flows, his brag rap doesn't always stick the landing, he's not quite as self-aware populist as he thinks he is - this is still a great record, even if it does feel like it's an outlier moment in Jay-Z's career. It's rare that his self-pity actually carries weight given his current circumstances, and it's a testament to his skill and No I.D.'s control as a producer that it turned out this streamlined, thought-provoking, and emotionally effective... but this is also not a young man's record, and it's making no plays for an audience Jay-Z doesn't already have. And for me, that's fine - I'd love to see Jay-Z get more experimental, and while I'm not sure he'll ever have material this raw ever again, it was potent, and well-delivered enough to net a 8/10 from me, a very respectable record in an discography full of them. Again, I'm no big Jay-Z fan, but I'll salute a man who is willing to step up and take this sort of honest responsibility, especially if he delivers damn great music to boot. I'm actually one of those folks who pays for TIDAL, but when it comes out to every other platform, you're going to want to get this one, trust me.

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