It’s a little hard to compliment Jay Z’s 4:44 without tipping the back of one’s hand. One can say it’s his best work in years, but he hasn’t made a great solo album since 2003 or even a pretty good one since 2009. One can say it’s a “cultural event,” but of course it is: He’s Jay Z (or now, rather, JAY Z), his wife is the biggest star in music, and 4:44 is his first album since she figuratively put him out in the street on Lemonade. One can say it’s the best rap album ever made by a 47-year-old, which it almost certainly is, but that’s not exactly blurb material. I can’t even tell you that you should go out and buy it, because you can’t—it’s currently available exclusively on Tidal, the streaming service part-owned by Jay Z and Beyoncé.
The current decade hasn’t been particularly kind to Jay. The year 2011 saw the release of Watch the Throne, his hugely successful album-length collaboration with Kanye West, but coming as it did off West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it felt like the first time since “Brooklyn’s Finest” that Jay’s star was eclipsed by that of a collaborator. His next solo album, 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, was a critical flop that felt musically and spiritually vapid and came bundled with an intrusive Samsung app. In 2014, he was attacked in an elevator by his sister-in-law over alleged marital infidelities, dalliances which then became a central theme of the best-selling and most critically acclaimed album of last year.
4:44 offers a lot of good news for Jay Z, so we’ll start with that. For starters, it’s far superior to Magna Carta and probably the best and most focused solo work he’s done since 2007’s American Gangster. The entire album is produced by legendary Chicago beatmaker No I.D., and the production is uniformly exquisite. The sample flips are wondrous, the too-rare pairing of a great producer and a generous clearance budget: Beats are constructed around Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today” (on “Smile”), Nina Simone’s “Four Women” and “Baltimore” (on “The Story of O.J.” and “Caught Their Eyes,” respectively), and Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” (on the album’s closer, “Legacy”). The result is 10 tracks shot with musical warmth and understatement, a welcome departure from the kitchen-sink maximalism of much of Jay’s later work.
Lyrically, 4:44 offers plenty of grist for the internet, a wealth of gossip, innuendo, thinly veiled barbs at competitors, and behind-the-scenes mogul-ing. But coming from one of rap’s all-time great narrative stylists, it often feels more concerned with the raw dumping of information than the art and panache with which it’s rendered. There’s an entire verse about Jay beefing with Prince’s lawyer over Tidal’s exclusive rights to the late Purple One’s catalogue, which is about as exciting as it sounds. A shot at Kanye West’s workout regimen as detailed on last year’s “30 Hours” is a tasty bit of pettiness (and Tidal cross-promotion), but it feels like empty calories when you remember this is the guy who once made “Takeover.”
This pesky half-bakedness—or perhaps half-heartedness—is most evident on “The Story of O.J.,” perhaps the album’s most conceptually ambitious track. The song starts out with the promise of an unflinching examination of race in America, deriving from O.J. Simpson’s oft-stated, and ultimately impossible, dream of being “not black, not white, just O.J.” The allusion portends a commentary on how the American prison of race entraps everyone, regardless of wealth and social status, and at first a lyrical detour from Jay into the dynamics of the New York real estate market seems like it might be an ironic aside. But by the time he’s off to bragging about the value of his art collection, plugging the price of a Tidal subscription, and tossing off idiotic stereotypes just a few moments later (“You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America?”), it feels like he’s lost either the focus or the nerve to see the song’s premise through. The track’s music video is startlingly powerful, but like everything else here, you need a Tidal subscription to experience it.
4:44’s juiciest passages—the ones that have thus far prompted the most content and commentary—are Jay’s confessions of his philandering, quasi-revelations that are returned to with such frequency that their emotional weight starts to feel stepped on. Jay’s first such admission comes by way of a comparison of himself to Eric Benét, Halle Berry’s ex, an odd confession–by–dated analogy that offers little reflection other than acknowledging that both men have (or in Benét’s case, had) exceptionally attractive wives. Later Jay compares himself to The Godfather’s Michael Corleone—“Kay losin’ the babies because their future’s uncertain”—a strange interpretation of his wife’s miscarriage as karmic punishment for his own fidelity. (Jay repeats this same move later on the album with the line, “I apologize for all the stillborns/ ’Cause I wasn’t present, your body wouldn’t accept it.”) It starts to feel like the worst pages of Drake’s playbook, in which female partners are ostensibly front and center but mostly in relation to men feeling bad.
That said, there are plenty of genuinely moving moments here. Jay’s discussion of his mother’s sexuality on “Smile,” for instance—“Had to hide in the closet, so she medicate/ Society shame and the pain was too much to take/ Cried tears of joy when you fell in love”—a startlingly candid revelation of something that wasn’t public until the album’s release. And “4:44,” a song-length apology to his wife, contains probably the most romantic lyrics Jay has ever penned: “We’re supposed to vacay till our backs burn/ We’re supposed to laugh till our heart stops/ And then meet in a space where the dark stops/ And lets love light the way.” This is pretty beautiful writing, a moment when the self becomes sublimated to something larger. Unfortunately, the next lines sort of undo it: “Like the men before me, I cut off my nose to spite my face/ I never wanted another woman to know/ Something about me that you didn’t know.” Is this really the best time to (once again) bring up your own cheating? There’s a point when incessantly apologizing becomes just another way of talking about yourself.
The album’s second-to-last track, and to my ears its one uninterrupted moment of greatness, is “Marcy Me,” a reflection on Jay’s childhood home and origins that, fittingly, feels like something from another era. Over a sample of Portuguese rock group Quarteto 1111’s “Todo O Mundo E Ninguém,” Jay spits intricate rhymes with a wit and ferociousness we haven’t heard from him in years. Physically, he’s not quite up to it, though—he sounds winded, accidentally and remarkably human. On an album preoccupied with the appearance of vulnerability, it’s one of the few sustained moments that feels genuinely vulnerable.
Rarely does any musician makes the best music of his or her career at age 47 or even come anywhere close to it. Rock fans like to cite Dylan, the Stones, and Springsteen as exemplars of longevity, but when they were in their late 40s, they were making albums such as Down in the Groove and Steel Wheels or releasing boxed sets of previously unreleased tracks. Taken in this context, the confidence and commitment of 4:44 is undeniably impressive, and it should return Jay to somewhere close to the center of the contemporary hip-hop conversation.
4:44 has been widely heralded as Jay Z’s most “personal” album, and understandably so. But really, who out there has ever listened to “D’Evils” or “Song Cry” or “99 Problems” or “No Hook” or “So Ghetto” or “Heart of the City” or “Hard Knock Life” and thought they weren’t personal? All great art is personal, but that doesn’t mean all personal art is great, and 4:44 too often feels like vertically integrated brand-building, chumming for audiences overly invested in figuring out whether Courtney-from-Hooters or Becky-with-the-good-hair are real people and doxxing them. As business models go, this is a shrewd one: Seize upon a public appetite for details on the world’s most famous marriage, give it to the internet in digestible pull quotes, make some short films, and stream it all on a service that you own for $9.99 a month, preferably on the Sprint network. But its preconditions are extreme fame and wealth, and as such it allows only a small handful of megastars to prosper while the rest of the industry depends on their largesse. Can’t knock the hustle, I guess, but I can’t quite bring myself to applaud it.