Why Jay-Z Matters: A 4:44 Review & Career Reflection
The Blueprint 4.
Vol 4… A New Life for S. Carter.
Jay-Z’s 4th classic.
Not a return to form, but an evolution. Not an album to prove he's still got it, but an album to reveal new aspects of one of the greatest American literary figures of the last three decades. Jay-Z’s third act magnum opus. 21+ years in the game have brought S. Carter full circle to reveal the fully formed, conscious revolutionary that has woven himself through Jay-Z’s lyrics since he first assertively noted, “All us Blacks got is sports and entertainment, until we even…” on “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” the very first track on Jay’s debut classic.
Those who didn't "just skim through it” always understood the ends that Jay used to justify the means. If you were listening closely, you knew that Jay “[did] this for the culture.” He expertly navigated a music industry that might not have elevated a rapper who “rhyme[d] like Common Sense” to a two-decade-and-running stay in the spotlight, all the while lacing his music with subtle hints of social awareness, possessing an acute understanding that, no matter how arrogant it sounded, his “presence [was] a gift.” From the beginning, the master architect was crafting "The Blueprint." Jay “show[ed] [us] how to do this, son.” How to own your circumstances, and make them work for you. How to never shy away from who you are. How to play the game of life with the hand that you were dealt, when "the win ain't in the bag." How to do it all your way, complete with multiple Frank Sinatra references for emphasis.
Jay-Z knew that many people never saw the “Che Guevara” behind the “bling,” but he never seemed overly concerned with it. He never submitted to expectations, instead using a combination of pop culture and literary acumen to seemingly bend the zeitgeist at will, throughout a career that has spanned multiple eras of Hip-Hop. In remaining at the pinnacle of one of the most influential art forms of his time, Shawn Carter provided a shining example of “Black Excellence;” a kid from the ghetto “putting up Will Smith numbers;” the ultimate role model of self-empowerment for anyone from abject circumstances, but most importantly, for Black youth in America.
And he was already all of those things well before 4:44, as early in his career as The Black Album. If that really had been his swan song, his career up to that point would have been enough. He had already racked up three unanimous classics, at distinctly different moments in his “Life and Times.” He had already defined Hip-Hop and it's evolution; but he wasn't finished. Post-The Black Album, Jay would deliver another arguable classic in American Gangster, a very timely and underrated album in The Blueprint 3, which attempted to define the Black experience as America entered the era of its first Black president, and is probably more sonically and stylistically innovative than it gets credit for, and Watch the Throne, an often underappreciated and misinterpreted collaboration with another arguable GOAT.
But even after all of this, there was still a “truth” he felt he owed “all the youth who fell in love with Jay-Z.” He offered “Nickels and Dimes” of this truth on Magna Carta Holy Grail. That album proved what we all knew: when Jay teams up with the group of producers that helped him define the sound of Hip-Hop at various points in his career, he can make a technically sound album that sounds like Hip-Hop is supposed to sound in the modern era. Sprinkled throughout that album were Jay’s attempts to redefine what it means to be “cool:” investing in art, being married, being a father, leaving a legacy. But the album as a whole was void of excitement, and it felt like the first time in his career that Jay was reacting to the sound of Hip-Hop, rather than attempting to redefine it. It was clear that Jay-Z had game to give, and wasn't content with simply dropping American Gangster sequels for the rest of his career, but it was also clear that Jay hadn't quite found his footing in the modern Hip-Hop landscape.
This is where the brilliance of No I.D. and the one-producer model help 4:44 be the album that Magna Carta Holy Grail is not. Rather than craft a sonic backdrop that falls in line with the Hip-Hop of 2017, No I.D. has composed a soundtrack for Jay-Z’s life in 2017, built from Jay-Z’s own playlist. And thus, 4:44 is an album that only Shawn Carter could make, and No I.D.’s compositions are the canvases for Shawn to reveal his “truth.” Confiding in No I.D., Shawn Carter is finally able to soften the “armor” that is Jay-Z, and reveal to us his newest blueprint: instructions for what to do after the hustle, after survival, after triumph; instructions for how to build community and leave a legacy. In doing this, for the first time in his career, Jay sacrifices technical skill for a message. But technical skill is of little concern, as this album is an intimate conversation with the fans who have been along for the 21+ year journey. We know how Shawn Carter became the hustler. We know how Jay-Z became one of the Greatest Rappers of All-Time. Jay-Z has told those stories. What we need to hear now is how Shawn Carter becomes a husband, a father, a good son, a leader. 4:44 tells these stories. Far from a reflection on a career that is coming to an end, 4:44 is the next chapter in the career-spanning epic of Shawn Carter’s struggle against poverty and institutional oppression. This time, he sets out to defeat the persona that he created to triumph over those things, in order to be the man that he needs to be for his family and those who look up to him. All it takes is a return to that first song on Reasonable Doubt to remember that Jay’s fight has always been “for the culture,” and thus, his victory on 4:44 is for the same.