A Hustler’s Apology
It’s a strange case of affairs when an affair occurs in hip hop. In general, male rappers are held to such high esteem, such untouchable heights – that many of their mistakes, shortcomings and bad decisions go unnoticed or aren’t cared for. It’s part and parcel of an MC’s persona that he have a criminal record, a distaste for law enforcement and a nonchalant attitude to issues any regular person would find harrowing. But what if the mistake they made was so great, so impactful in the wider whisperings of pop culture, that the whole world was your jury? What if you cheated on Beyoncé? What if the most popular female artist in the world, arguably one of the most beautiful women in the world, told her tale of a woman scorn through 13 tracks of powerful feminine rebuttal; resulting in her boldest and best work to date?
For a long time, Sean Carter stood dormant, either unaware of the flurry of hate that had been fired his way through articles, tweets and elongated Facebook posts, or idle in the defenceless case of his infidelity, perhaps being his own biggest critic in the aftermath of ‘Lemonade‘. It seems the latter was the reality (or at least how he looks back on it now), as Jay-Z’s 13th studio album ‘4:44‘ is defined by its introspective, often damming analysis of its creator.
When the opening lines of your album are “Kill Jay-Z” and well… you are Jay-Z, it’s a clear statement of intent for what much of the LP’s focus will be on. You see, to look at himself with the utmost sense of disappointment, Jay must first sweep aside the ego that has carried his music for years; ridding himself of the persona he spent all that time crafting in order to realise he’s more than just a rapper, a businessman and an icon – he’ s a father and a husband. ‘Kill Jay Z’ goes on to recognise this truth as the rapper himself says “I know people back-stab you, I felt bad too / But this ‘fuck everybody’ attitude ain’t natural”. Perhaps ‘4:44‘, as much as it is an study of Jay-Z, is also a vague guide for the younger part of the African American side of the USA.
The ‘fuck everybody’ attitude is one that accompanies many a rapper, and Jay demands to learn not just from him but from other veterans in the same field as to how to elevate yourself as a black youth. ‘Smile’ and ‘Caught Their Eyes’ call upon the community to be aware of their surroundings and use it to their benefit, struggling through hard times but always looking towards the future instead of looking back. Jay’s impassioned verses of both hope and grit are given extra credence when paired with No I.D.’s sample-filled instrumentals and provide the listener with the type of soul we haven’t seen from Hov in a very long time.
Their partnership, though very rare throughout both their careers, has here brought out the kind of stripped-back brilliance not seen since ‘The College Dropout’ ruled the airwaves. ‘The Story of O.J.’, an almost blues-inspired cut that details the plight of the African-American no matter what their status, may just be my favourite track of the year so far. It’s smooth, chopped-up vocal sample and jazz piano melody make it the most enticing song on the LP, especially with Jay’s sublime performance as he schools the youth on how credit is more important than the strip club and how your stacks of money are nothing when compared to real investment. It’s a rich man’s struggle track, but it outstandingly embodies the hunger of an up and comer.
A ‘old head’ like Jay is as much of an observer as ever on ‘4:44‘, more so adept at directing his lyrics to his relationship with rap’s current generation. On the wonderful choir-sampled bounce of ‘Family Feud’ he laughingly plays up the discord between old and new, citing that their differences are lesser than they really think – especially with the fantastic line “And old niggas, y’all stop actin’ brand new / Like 2Pac ain’t have a nose ring too, huh”.
It’s moments where Sean Carter recognises his stature in the current climate that resonate best with his lyrical content, with ‘Marcy Me’, a metaphorical walk through his childhood streets, having him reminisce over days when he could only envision the kind of heights he’s at now. He looks back with fondness on these times as a street hustler and drug dealer but also notes on how things were on a knife’s edge everyday for him and every other person living in Brooklyn – noting the ‘kill or be killed’ agenda that was day-to-day life in Southern New York: “Hold a Uzi vertical, let the thing smoke / Y’all flirtin’ with death, I be winkin’ through the scope”. Pair with the piano loop and soft kick masterfully put down by No I.D. and you have a subdued-yet-powerful track that resonates with both sides of Carter’s coin.
The way producer No I.D. (who has a hand in every beat on this record) flips exquisite samples from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone and Kool & the Gang provides Jay a base to riff off some of the most personal verses he’s ever penned. The highlight of his verbal flagellation is the track that shares it’s name with the album, one in which he goes into great depth on the subject of his shame. Sampling Hannah Williams’ and the Affirmations song of the same topic, Hov drags himself through the mud as he reflects on both the personal and family effects of which his unfaithfulness brought forward. The lines “And if my children knew / I don’t even know what I would do / If they ain’t look at me the same / I would probably die with all the shame” bring on this conflict of reactions for any listener; of disgust, shame, disappointment – but most of all sympathy, because what person would ever want to live with the knowledge that one day they’re going to have to tell their kids they were once unfaithful?
This, rather ironically, is where Jay Z shines; not only in his self-deprecation but in the way he is so brutal about it all. I imagine there are just some things you can’t gloss over as an artist, some things so widely-known that they require addressing – cheating on a worldwide superstar is one of them. But Hov dispatches his tale so painfully and honestly, you can’t help but admire the writing (and even the impressive, always effortless flow) of the track. A once untouchable hustler, the song indicates a point of no return for Jay as both a human and an MC: he’s an imperfect man who isn’t afraid to be perfectly truthful about it.
As the world continues to side eye Jay Z for his crimes against pop culture, as they will do for years to come, the man who was once the proclaimed saviour of hip hop delivered a raw, impassioned and often moving record to his judges. He stands before the jury, humbled and defeated, professing his guilt with pained regret. But with unwavering voice, smart writing and a instrumental backing most rappers would kill for, he reminds his onlookers who he once was – who he still is. Jay Z may have a lot to answer for, but with ‘4:44’ he addresses every question with the grit and determination of a hustler, coupled with the smarts and decor of a billionaire. Though he pleads guilty, his incredible 13th studio album may have just seen him leave court a free man.