Every JAY-Z album since 2003 has been an event. There was the retirement saga of The Black Album, then the comeback of Kingdom Come; the surprise film-inspired return to form of American Gangster and then the overwrought, trilogy-concluding Blueprint 3. Watch The Throne and Magna Carta Holy Grail both felt like transmissions from deep within some golden Illuminati cave, with Hova casually obsessing over Rothkos and wine that costs more than your mortgage.
And so the new 4:44 arrives with all the baggage of being another weighty, “post-retirement” JAY-Z release, discussed in pre-release missives using the same terms as Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods; it is, after all, only available via cellphone carrier Sprint and Hov’s reportedly slow-moving streaming music service, Tidal. But now that it’s out, it’s an event for a much different reason: It’s fucking good. At 10 tracks and 36 minutes, it’s the tightest of his 16 records, seemingly taking cues from some of the scrappy, single-less, artist-driven rap and R&B of the past few years, like Anti, Coloring Book, Blonde, Lemonade, and The Life Of Pablo, among others. The production is entirely from veteran producer No I.D., who helmed Vince Staples’ similarly taut Summertime ’06, and it’s full of phasing, warped soul samples, chopped up into a warm cloud that evokes Hova’s early-’00s chemistry with Kanye.
Indeed, West looms large here. Back in those halcyon, pre-Black Album days, No I.D. served as West’s mentor, helping him achieve his dream of producing for Hov. More recently, though, West’s assimilation into the Kardashian milieu seems to have precipitated some serious health issues and that brief, disturbing embrace of Donald Trump, not to mention his own headline-nabbing shit-talk of Jay and Beyoncé. And so the album-opening sequence directed at West feels almost like an intervention between friends:
You walkin’ around like you invincible
You dropped outta school, you lost your principles
I know people backstab you, I felt bad too
But this “fuck everybody” attitude ain’t natural
A few bars later, Hov makes a detour to throw some salt on Future’s wounds, whose child with Ciara is now being raised by Seahawks quarterback and notorious cornball Russell Wilson. Both of these mentions are attention-getting out of context, but the track is much more about rappers’ egos in the abstract, and JAY-Z’s in particular. The record demands humility at the outset in part so Jay can address the elephant in the room: that is, the marital infidelities revealed on Beyoncé’s Lemonade. He apologizes to her specifically and at length on the title track, which, by its very name, is a reference—the pair have a long-running obsession with the number 4, due to their birthdates, and have matching “IV” tattoos on their ring fingers.
Look, I apologize, often womanize
Took for my child to be born
See through a woman’s eyes
Took for these natural twins to believe in miracles
On the exact next track, the two link up, with Beyoncé assuming an almost spectrally approving presence as Hov disavows Becky with the good hair (“Let me alone, Becky”), the diss from Lemonade that launched a thousand conspiracy-theory blog posts.
And so, yeah: That’s an event, all right. But the real event is the return of Jay, who sounds dialed in and comfortable in a way he hasn’t in over a decade. New peaks behind the curtain of his marriage will always net headlines, as will anything involving Kanye, but aside from those mentions the track getting the most early attention is “The Story Of O.J.,” due to No I.D.’s swooning, soulful beat, which jutters and blooms like a memory you can’t shake, as well as Hov’s verses, which paint with his characteristic easy eloquence the intersection of race and wealth in America. 4:44 is a record worth chewing on—we’ll have a full review next week—but also enjoying casually, even celebrating. Before he was a world-conquering billionaire, Jay was a wise-ass rapper with billion-dollar taste. That guy is back. Time to switch to Sprint?