THE GRADE A
BOTTOM LINE A revealing look at Jay’s life — specifically as a man and generally as a minority in America.
The brilliance of Jay-Z’s new album, “4:44” (Roc Nation), really won’t sink in for a while.
Its headline-making revelations — apologizing to wife Beyoncé for the marital problems she outlined in last year’s “Lemonade” album, accepting the blame for his sister-in-law Solange’s physical attack on him in an elevator, and responding to Kanye West’s tirade against him last year, to name a few — are simply too distracting, initially, to realize how stunning “4:44” is as a whole. Throughout the album’s 10 tracks, Jay takes an unflinching look at his life — both his successes and failures — and discusses how he wants to improve it. By working mostly with producer No I.D., who mines jazz and throwback soul samples that stay mostly in the background, Jay creates a cohesive piece that allows him to try varying approaches to make points that all hit home.
He smartly begins with himself. “You can’t heal what you never reveal,” he rhymes in “Kill Jay-Z,” where he vows to end the mistakes of that persona, which also sparked the return to the name Jay-Z. “You know you owe the truth to all the youth that fell in love with Jay Z.”
Jay moves on to fostering black empowerment in “The Story of O.J.” “You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club?” he asks. “Credit . . . Y’all think it’s bougie, I’m like, it’s fine, but I’m tryin’ to give you a million dollars’ worth of game for $9.99.” He takes that idea to the next level in “Family Feud,” where he encourages African-Americans to support black-owned businesses.
In the title track of “4:44,” Jay turns to his marriage to Beyoncé, a straightforward apology for his actions. “I apologize, often womanize,” he rhymes over a sample from Hannah Williams & the Affirmations’ “Late Nights & Heartbreak.” “Took for my child to be born to see through a woman’s eyes, took for these natural twins to believe in miracles . . . I don’t deserve you.”
Over his previous 12 albums, Jay has rarely been this vulnerable. On “4:44,” he shows how grateful he is for all that he has and how he plans to work hard to keep it. He isn’t going for the easy, big flashy hit here, with only the reggae-infused “Bam” seeming anywhere close to something that would work on pop radio. Instead, Jay is taking the tough road to staying on top — by being better than everybody else.