Jigga’s changing on us. Maybe it’s middle-age approaching, maybe it’s becoming a father to some stupidly named twins, maybe it’s his superdiva wife slapping him down with irresistible force on Lemonade… whatever the reason, the old gangsta’s softening up.
4:44 follows the misstep of Magna Carter Holy Grail, and its main purpose is to let the world know that, right now and forever more, family is the most important thing in his life. Even more than money. Even more than street cred. Even more than demonstrating he’s the best rapper alive.
Tracks 1-6 are the most revealing Jay’s ever been, taking a leaf out of his apprentice Kanye’s soul-searching book of rap. He addresses, you’ll be amazed to hear, with a high level of humility various accusations that have been levelled against him over the years. He kills off Jay-Z, the cocksure street thug persona, in the first track: ‘Fuck Jay-Z… You got people you love you sold drugs to/You got high on the life, that shit drugged you/You walkin’ around like you invincible/You dropped outta school, you lost your principles.’ He follows that up with a neat little ode to black pride and O.J.’s betrayal of it, betrayal being the one of the album’s key themes. Then on the title track he finally owns up to cheating on Bey with the mysterious ‘Becky’, in a song so full of quotables that it’s hard to choose just one, but this particularly got to me: ‘You matured faster than me, I wasn’t ready/So I apologise/I seen the innocence leave your eyes’. And then on the next track, in full splendour, his cuckolded wife joins him to inform the world that ‘Nobody wins when the family feuds’. Beyoncé cries ‘Amen’, and so do we.
I’m tired of the fools on the internet who spend their time posting theories about how this whole marital spat has been made up to sell albums. Because if it has, then so what? Who cares? I don’t know Mr. Carter or Ms. Knowles personally and neither do you. Therefore the ‘truthfulness’ of this whole ‘Becky’ situation has no relevance – we should treat Lemonade and 4:44 as artistic projects about the difficulty of sustaining love and marriage in the modern world. Because adultery is commonplace, whether we want to admit it or not, and the fact that this particular couple have addressed it so openly and intelligently in their music makes for absorbing, fascinating listening. That they happen to be superrich and famous is completely irrelevant. They’ve given their fans a window into the troubles involved with sustaining a relationship beyond the happily-ever-after of marriage, and personally I love them for it.
4:44 is not, however, as focused or perfect as Lemonade. Tracks 7-10 sadly peter out, aiming for a return to the operatic level of boasting that made Jigga’s name, yet sounding less convincing than usual after the vulnerability displayed before. His takedown of the Migos ‘skrrt-skrrt’ school of rappers on ‘Moonlight’ is admittedly deft: ‘We stuck in La La Land/Even when we win, we gon’ lose!’ But ‘Legacy’ doesn’t leave you pondering the enormity of his legacy the way it promises to, riding a half-assed beat in a way that won’t make you come crawling back for more in the way that, say, The Black Album will.
Jay-Z’s always been very, very funny and his flow’s never been less than enthralling, but never before has the man seemed, well, likeable. Enter the joyful Stevie Wonder sample and open-hearted message of ‘Smile’, which includes Jay’s response to finding out that his mother was a lesbian: ‘Cried tears of joy when you fell in love/Don’t matter to me if it’s a him or her/I just wanna see you smile through all the hate.’ Well, well. Even if he nearly let the ‘baddest girl in the world’ get away through his own selfish pride, I’m starting to like the man. Not just his music.