TL;DR Haiku Review:
“Hova airs issues, introspective at Kanye, that’d be so Kanye”
It isn’t worth going deep on what everybody has already said about Jay-Z’s new album: it’s personal, it’s arresting, and a revelation. It’s not that I would disagree with those assessments. Jay-Z, like many hip-hop artists of a certain vintage, have struggled with being honest and genuinely introspective.
Yes, Jay-Z already released introspective tracks with personal lyrics. (See: the Blueprint I for a few examples). Those tracks, while they cannot be discounted, were often undercut by the very next song. That has been a consistent crticisim of mainstream hip-hop artists.
However, 4:44 is (ironically) more about Yeezy than Jay-Z. If we are being honest, Jay’s later-career albums have been more about protecting a legacy, how great it is to be him specifically, being rich, and would these lesser rappers stop taking shots at the King. This approach worked for radio play and for generating singles about how great Jay-Z is.
It took a true iconoclast like Kanye West to pull mainstream hip-hop out of the well-worn tropes that have characterized (and plagued) the genre (again focusing on the mainstream only) since the late 1990’s. You know the tropes: (1) I’m rich, (2) I’m real (haven’t forgotten where I’ve come from), (3) I’m great (WAY better than the rappers that I passively aggressively reference), (4) “M.O.B.” etc. And who else, besides Jay-Z, is a bigger symbol of mainstream hip-hop post 1997?
4:44 is leaner and devoid of hooks or gimics. I believe Jay’s relationship with Kanye has slowly changed his music for the better because it pushed him creatively. (You can hear the beginnings of this with “Watch the Throne.” Jay-Z was outshined by Kanye, hands down, even if he did creep outside of his MC comfort zone more.) This slow evolution brings us to 2017 where Jay-Z is comfortable enough to move beyond his need to assure everyone that Jay-Z was beyond reproach.
Jay-Z may or may not admit it, but “4:44” probably wouldn’t be but for his relationship with Kanye. Sure, they obviously have experienced a personal fall out. Sure, a lot of that fall out can probably be attributed to Yeezy’s tortured genius. Nevertheless, could anyone see “Kill Jay-Z” coming without Kanye? Forget about the creative dissing of other rappers and Eric Benet, its Jay-Z’s metaphorical self-immolation on 4:44 that stands out. Now, magazines and the internet are praising Jay for being real, for being honest, for being raw, for being self-aware. If those writers were being honest, they are praising Jay for putting out a Kanye record.
What would I recommend? I would defintely buy and/or stream this album. Unlike some of Jay-Z’s more recent solo work, this album will stick to your ribs.