In April of last year, Beyonce made Lemonade, an open confessional so raw, so bruising, so black, yet so triumphant, it instantly became a cultural touchstone. Highlighting details of her super high profile marriage to JAY-Z, one of the most important figures in rap, Lemonade systematically uncovered a universe of betrayal and pain. One which followers had long suspected to be imperfect, especially when TMZ released footage of Beyonce, stoic and unfazed while younger sister, Solange physically attacked JAY-Z in an elevator on the night of the 2014 MET Gala.
With tracks like Don’t Hurt Yourself, Hold On and Sorry from Lemonade, Beyonce hinted at her hubby’s unfaithful behavior and advising that he better call his side chick, a mysterious ‘’Becky with the good hair.’’ The internet went into overdrive trying to place the identity of this Becky. Beyonce, known to be notoriously private, made no further comments on the matter.
On 4:44, his thirteenth studio album, JAY-Z more or less admits his guilt, divulging on the domestic confession, Family Feud which interestingly features an angelic Beyonce on background vocals. He owns up so, I’ll fuck up a good thing if you let me/Let me alone Becky/A man who don’t take of his family can’t be rich.
This line may get all the press, but it is almost a throwaway in a record that has bigger concerns, like grappling with not just domestic tensions, but those that are communal or racial in nature. No one wins when a family feuds, he surmises. The album opener Kill Jay Z, not only succeeds in killing off the alter ego he featured in the last studio record, Magna Carta Holy Grail, it also touches briefly on that elevator incident and expresses his mea culpa for the failings of his life and marriage.
The emotional center and force of gravity from where the record spreads out from is the titular track which samples Hannah Williams’ Late nights and heartbreak. A Grammy winner if we ever heard one, 4:44- the single is a nearly five minute letter of apology to the woman whom he has loved and wronged at different times. JAY-Z mentions a miscarriage, accepts responsibility for his shameful behavior and promises to do better for the sake of the children. It is the most honest and emotional he has been on a record since he made Song Cry in 2001.
The Story of OJ is pointed social commentary that address racial tensions as symbolized by the former football star’s race politics. With sharpened lyrics and writing that cuts and bleeds, JAY-Z ponders his place on the culture while stressing the importance of financial freedom- by nook or crook for the black man. All of this is set to Nina Simone’s Four Women, to be heard also on the soundtrack for the Academy baiting Tyler Perry film, For Coloured Girls.
Smile dives into gender and sexual politics and salutes the sacrificial love of the mother at the same time. Stevie Wonder is sampled as the song also serves as a coming out for Gloria Carter, JAY-Z’s mother who submits a heartfelt poem at the end. The drama surrounding Moonlight’s Oscar night triumph last year is revisited self-effacingly on Moonlight.
4:44 is the most personal album JAY-Z has waxed and his flow hasn’t gotten blunt with age. He will out-rhyme many of the twenty somethings in the game today but JAY-Z has not shied away from showing his vulnerability, allowing himself to be lifted by the woman who becomes his life partner, those who contribute background vocals and those who have supported his career.
Who knew confessional rap could be so satisfying?
Album Name: 4:44
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