By Scott T. Sterling
How can JAY-Z possibly still be making relevant rap records in 2017?
Having just turned 47 late last year, the man born Shawn Carter is better known to a new generation of music listeners as Beyoncé’s husband, the father of Blue Ivy and the recently birthed twins whose alleged cheating was considered to be the catalyst behind her already legendary Lemonade album that dominated 2016.
In an era dominated by a young regime of rap heroes including Migos, Future and Young Thug, many have regulated Jay-Z to the old-school bin, a once-vital artist able to utilize his business acumen to become a genuine mogul, rubbing elbows with the likes of Warren Buffett while at the same time the butt of countless social media memes targeting him as the prototypical “rap dad.”
While there may have been skepticism from some corners leading up to the release of 4:44, JAY-Z has calmly and confidently crafted a quality album that shows he can more than hang with the current crop of hip-hop idols and even teach them a thing or two along the way.
Clocking in at a concise 36 minutes across 10 tracks (more than half the tracks are less than four minutes long), this all-killer-no-filler full-length finds JAY-Z utilizing his age and experience to his benefit, firing off brilliantly crafted (and often deeply personal) couplets over taut productions courtesy of Chicago beat-making master, No I.D.
Yes, JAY-Z can absolutely still make a relevant rap record in 2017. His new album is not just good—it’s great. So much so that cherry-picking the five best tracks from it can quickly turn into a frustrating exercise. But when forced to choose, this selection of songs won’t steer you wrong. The best part being that there are five more solid tracks to dive into when you’re done with these.
The album opens with a decided bang, as he hits the ground running with a hard-hitting and personal treatise about that finds him referencing his drug-dealing childhood and the instance when he shot his own brother when he was only 12. He calls out former Watch the Throne partner, Kanye West, over his notorious onstage rant in Sacramento last year, but saves his harshest barbs for Eric Benét, mentioning the R&B singer’s volatile relationship with ex-wife Halle Berry as a cautionary tale.
“The Story of OJ”
The rapper uses the story of defamed star, OJ Simpson, as an analogy for black Americans place in society. Rapping over a Nina Simone sample, he uses the track to talk about using wealth to personal advantage instead of just posing with it on social media.
“Caught Their Eyes” featuring Frank Ocean
Riding a surprisingly funky Randy Newman sample, JAY-Z goes in on the world around him, rapping about how alleged friends and business associates aren’t always who they appear to be. He opens up about late music legend Prince, and how his legacy and estate are being taken advantage of now that he’s dead: “This guy had ‘Slave’ on his face/You think he wanted the masters with his masters?/You greedy bastards sold tickets to walk through his house/I’m surprised you ain’t auction off the casket.” Frank Ocean provides the melodic chorus.
The album’s title track is sure to be the most scrutinized, as it addresses the rapper’s relationship with his wife, Beyoncé. Going into their courtship, he admits he wasn’t ready to get serious enough to let go of his womanizing ways, opens up about her miscarriage and apologizes for falling short “of what I say I’m about.” With details about their children, (“Took for these natural twins to believe in miracles”), it stands among JAY-Z’s most personal songs to date.”
The final track on 4:44 opens with the voice of his daughter Blue Ivy asking, “Daddy, what’s a will?” Over the course of the track, he addresses the question, explaining how he wants his fortune to benefit his family (“generational wealth, that’s the key”). He goes in on religion, calling out his Christian minister grandfather for molesting his own daughter, the sister of JAY-Z’s father. The somber track coasts along on a melancholy sample of soul legend Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” making for a thoughtful coda to the album.