JAY-Z Bares His Soul On '4:44'

Jun 30, 2017
Originally published on July 6, 2017 11:48 am

JAY-Z opens his latest album, 4:44, by slaying his own ego.

For an MC who's spent his entire career constructing such a formidable facade, it's a tall task. But "Kill Jay Z" sets the stage for what becomes his most personal, vulnerable album yet — and arguably one of his best.

Why the title 4:44? Because he woke up at 4:44 a.m. one morning and wrote the album's title track, he tells iHeartRadio. "I just believe it's one of the best songs I've ever written," he says — which is good, because it's also the song people have been waiting a whole year for him to write.

He and wifey Beyoncé share a lot of connections with the number four — birth dates, their anniversary date, even their favorite president was No. 44. In "4:44," he apologizes for putting it all on the line with the alleged infidelity that made Beyoncé's Lemonade so bittersweet: "I suck at love, I think I need a do-over / I would be emotionally available if I invited you over." But Hov goes even further, apologizing to all the women he may have hurt in the past. "It took for my child to be born," he raps, "to see through a woman's eyes."

He doesn't stop there. In "The Story of O.J.," he shuts down the assumption that success is a salve for racism. And in "Smile," he reveals his mother's closeted sexual identity ("Mama had four kids, but she's a lesbian / Had to pretend so long that she's a thespian").

It's a soul-baring narrative from a rapper and entrepreneur who continues to push himself to the forefront of the genre, despite being past what many consider to be his prime. At the same time, he's pioneering new terrain for a youthful genre that has struggled to mature in subject matter since reaching its midlife crisis. In "Family Feud," he addresses rap's generation gap head on, imploring younger artists to protect their wealth — black wealth, which has been so historically undervalued and pillaged by an unforgiving industry. As he approaches 50, post-retirement JAY-Z sounds as vital as he ever, while paving the way for the next generation of MCs to age gracefully on the mic.

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Jay-Z, the hip-hop goliath, has had a productive summer so far. His collaboration with Beyonce yielded two releases - their twins. And just this morning, he released a new solo album called "4:44" - you know, like the time, four hours, 44 minutes. Now, with the release of this new album, a lot of people are wondering where Jay-Z might be taking hip-hop next. And so we asked NPR Music's hip-hop writer Rodney Carmichael to join us. Hey, Rodney.

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: Hey, how are y'all doing?

GREENE: I'm good. So before we get to the backstory of this album, I think we should play some music. That's the best way to do this. So what are we going to listen to?

CARMICHAEL: This is "Kill Jay-Z" in which he starts the album out by slaying his own ego, basically. It's a really good place to begin.

GREENE: Let's listen.


JAY-Z: (Rapping) Kill Jay-Z. They'll never love you. You'll never be enough. Let's just keep it real, Jay-Z. [Expletive] Jay-Z. I mean, you shot your own brother. How can we know if we can trust Jay-Z? And you know better. I know you do. But you got to do better. Boy, you owe it to Blue.

GREENE: Slaying his own ego. Why would Jay-Z be doing that?

CARMICHAEL: Well, I think he's trying to set us up to take us in a slightly different place than where Jay-Z tends to go on his albums, which is a much more personal place and a much more vulnerable space for him. He reveals a lot of himself, and, you know, that hasn't always necessarily been his forte on the mic.

GREENE: Well, do you like the music? Do you like the album?

CARMICHAEL: I love it. This album is incredible. This is already my favorite Jay-Z album. It might be his best. It's definitely his best in recent years.

GREENE: I can hear people dying to listen to it all weekend after hearing you say that. Well, let's talk about his journey. I mean, in the '90s, a lot of people said Jay was, you know, taking hip-hop in this totally new direction. He's approaching 50 years old now. Is he still considered, you know, sort of a trailblazer or not?

CARMICHAEL: Well, he's been a trailblazer on the industry side. He's been a businessman, an entrepreneur, you know, as he likes to point out time and time again. But I think with this album he is pioneering a mature hip-hop movement. I think that he is - he's leading hip-hop into a new direction. This genre that has been, you know, a young genre for all of these years, he's really opening the gateway to show - to show people how the genre can age gracefully.

GREENE: Hip-hop fans can age along with him, in a way.


GREENE: Let me ask you - so in hip-hop, there's this thing when an artist gets called out by another artist, they might respond in a song. This is a little different with Jay-Z and his wife Beyonce because Beyonce made a song about infidelity in her big album "Lemonade." And I want to listen to a little bit of the title track "4:44" from Jay-Z here.


JAY-Z: (Rapping) I apologize, often womanize. Took for my child to be born to see through a woman's eyes. Took for these natural twins to believe in miracles. Took me too long for this song. I don't deserve you.

GREENE: They keep their relationship so private, but here it's sort of spilling out into their music.

CARMICHAEL: Well, that's where they've always left it, actually. And this is the track that everybody has been waiting on since - since Beyonce's album came out. This is the response to it, basically. It's an apologetic track. And it's not - he's not just apologizing to Beyonce. He's apologizing to women in general, women that he may have wronged in the past. He says that the birth of his first daughter was really an awakening for him to be able to see, you know, through a woman's eyes, so to speak. And he really goes there with this album. It's really deep.

GREENE: Talking about Jay-Z's new album with NPR Music's Rodney Carmichael. Rodney, thanks so much.

CARMICHAEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.