Jay Z no longer just puts out albums. Every new release from the self-proclaimed greatest rapper alive is an event — which we are expected to assess not as a mere collection of songs but a happening of major cultural significance.
There’s an extra sizzle to 4:44, where the artist born Shaun Carter wrestles with Beyonce’s Lemonade, in which she essentially accused her husband of infidelity.
He doesn’t deny the charges here and even appears to have a brushing acquaintance with humility.
“You almost went Eric Benet / Let the baddest girl in the world get away,” he rhymes on Kill Jay Z (Benet’s marriage to Halle Berry ended very publicly when he cheated on her), adding “You egged Solange on, knowing all along all you had to say was you was wrong”,
The latter is a reference to his face off with Beyoncé’s sister, footage of which was leaked to the press before rumours of infidelity had started to circulate. Yet expectations that Jay Z would deliver a sort of Lemonade Part II, confronting Beyonce’s accusations one by one, prove wide of the mark.
4:44 is as much about Jay Z’s relationship with hip hop as with his wife and the great swathes of the album come off as a state of the nation address by one of the genre’s elder statesmen.
He delves, for instance, into institutional racism on ‘Moonlight’, Jay Z’s take on the Oscars shambles that saw La La Land wrongly declared best picture winner in place of Moonlight (“We stuck in La La Land. Even if we win, we gonna lose”) .
If the lyrics are hard-hitting the music is accessible with a vengeance. Working with regular collaborator No ID, Jay Z squeezes in Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone and Nancy Sinatra samples while Legacy repurposes the hook from Donny Hathaway’s ‘Someday We’ll All Be Free’ as chorus.
The result is a weirdly syrupy affair — a record that contains a multitude of darkness even as it tries very hard to be charming and likeable.
What that says about Jay Z will probably require an entirely new album to unpack.
Who knows? Maybe Beyoncé is working on one even as we speak.
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