Jay Z calls "4:44," the title track from his superb thirteenth solo release, the "crux of the album." It's an apt description considering how pivotal the narrative of the song is to the project, and by extension, his life. The legendary Brooklyn rapper lays out his infidelities and apologizes to Beyoncé for his past behavior.
In an interview with the New York Times, No I.D. revealed he made the beat "to box him into telling that story," which hinged on the soulful backdrop that opens the record. Credit Hannah Williams & The Affirmations, who have received a boost from having their song "Late Nights & Heartbreak" sampled on "4:44."
Complex spoke with Williams about the process of having their song sampled, what her initial reaction was to hearing "4:44," and what the band has planned going forward.
When did you first find out they were going to sample your vocals on the song?
A very long time ago, on the 27th of February. It’s been a very long time to keep it under my hat and not tell the world about it.
Who was it that reached out to you to let you?
Jay Z phoned me.
He called you directly?
Yeah he did, which was astonishing. I wasn’t expecting that.
Do you remember what he said when he contacted you?
Absolutely. I was on a coach on the way out to Leeds in North England. I don’t know if you know but I run loads of choirs and run the music department at the University of Winchester. And every year we take our big choirs out to this massive choir festival which is about 300 singers. We’d gone up to Leeds for this festival and my phone rang while I was on the bus and it was my drummer and manager Jai, and he was like, “OK where are you?” I was like, I’m on a coach for the students and he was like, “You’re not allowed to react to this but Jay Z is going to phone you at some point today.” Obviously, when you say to somebody don’t react the first thing you do is react, right? So I immediately was like, what the fucking hell! This is completely amazing! And everybody was silent on the coach, like what happened? And I’m just like, everything is fine, nothing to see here, everything is absolutely fine don’t worry guys, misunderstanding.
Long story short, he didn’t phone me that day and he didn’t phone me the next day; maybe it’s just not going to happen. On the way home on the same coach with the same people coming from the same concert, my phone rings but it’s in my bag so I didn’t hear it. As we are approaching home I pick up my phone for any alerts to see if my husband called and I’ve got three missed calls and a text message that says, “Hi, it’s Jay. Can you give me a call when you get a chance so we can talk things over?” You can imagine, again, I completely lost my mind at that point and was like, OK, this is either a really elaborate wind up and somebody is pulling my leg, or this is actually Jay that wants to speak to me. Turned out it was really Jay and so I told my husband I am coming home to call Jay Z. He was the only person I told.
We had this short but lovely conversation where I phoned him, he picked up the phone and he was like, “Thanks so much for calling me, I know how busy you are,” and I was like do you know you? Have you seen how busy you are right now? My life paled to insignificance really. So he told me, “I want to tell you I have written the most personal song I have ever written around your voice and I really want to use it on the album.” I was like yeah, of course. You can have whatever you’d like, mate. And so he asked for the sessions from my original album recordings and for me to do some different permutations of the lyrics and send those over within the next week. So yeah, that was kind of the short, sweet conversation that has led to an absolutely gargantuan event in my career, in our career.
The vulnerability he’s able to capture [on '4:44,'] it’s beautiful poetry.
What was your initial reaction when you heard the song?
I just couldn’t believe it. It started and immediately I was like wow, it starts with me so that’s cool. Even if people only hear the first two seconds they are going to hear me and my voice, and my guitarist, and my drummer. That’s fucking awesome! I kept listening, and we are 56 seconds in and it’s still just me. [Laughs.] The amount of space on the track that he allowed our original song to speak for itself... what I really love about the song is how he’s not rhythmically rapping. It’s like proper floetry, and I find that to make him sound even more vulnerable. The purpose of the track was his apology, which was a reaction to Lemonade which was absolutely killer and brutal. The vulnerability he’s able to capture, it’s beautiful poetry, and the way that he delivered it around our song. My reaction was a million things at once. It was like wow, this actually happened. Two, it’s the title track of the album. And three, he has been so respectful of the original material. He didn’t try to use vocoders, there isn’t any Auto-Tune. It’s just absolutely raw. What else can I be other than completely giddy with excitement, and I think that he and No I.D. have just done something amazing with a track that is my favorite thing that I have ever recorded.
You are connected to one of the most revealing songs that Jay Z has ever rapped in his entire career. How does that feel?
You know, no pressure. [Laughs.] It’s pretty crazy. We really didn’t know how big it was going to be. We didn’t know how much we were going to be on it. Even our amazing labels bosses; Nicolò Pozzoli at Record Kicks in Italy, they were having lots of conversations since February with Jay’s team and lawyers. He heard the track and heard the sample and was like, “OK, so it’s pretty much the whole song, brilliant.” But even those guys hadn’t heard what Jay Z was doing over it, they only heard No I.D.’s production over our song around which he was going to work. It was like some big Hollywood secret and a huge question mark over all of our heads from when we found out it potentially was going to happen up until last Friday when we actually heard the song.
Aside from the title track, what would you say your favorite songs from this new album are?
“The Story of O.J.,” I think that’s probably my favorite. I met with the band for the first time since we heard the album and we were discussing how this totally awakened in all of us a real curiosity about the entire album, but also about Jay Z as a human being, entrepreneur, and being so fascinated in what he has been able to achieve in such a short life. I’m 35 and I feel like I’m in the beginning of my career. The guys got 21 Grammy’s; it’s absolutely phenomenal.
How do you plan to build on this moment?
We are carrying on with writing our next album. Late Nights & Heartbreak came out November of last year and we have been riding a relatively gentle wave. It’s definitely the best work I have ever done and I am exceptionally proud of it and happy it is getting a little more recognition. We have been working hard for an extremely long time and we’ve never let the reigns go and gotten complacent. We really pushed ourselves to get ready for whatever is coming around the corner.
I didn’t know how big this was going to be and you can’t possibly imagine what is going to happen next. You can’t imagine who is going to bite, or who is going to invest in you or take you on a U.S. tour. I don’t know what the response is going to be and how many gigs we are going to get out of this but I am hopeful. I am a very optimistic person and so my dreams are in the clouds and I am trying to keep my feet on the floor really. The world is absolutely at our fingertips right now and I am so proud and so glad that No I.D. played him this track and they have given us a chance. Because that’s what this is, it really is a chance, and we had a million incredibly lucky breaks; I know I have in my life. I feel extremely lucky to be where I am, even before all of this happened, and this is another enormous break in my life. I intend to capitalize on it with love and with hard work, with passion and with integrity with everything I can to get our music out there to the rest of the world.
Hannah Williams & The Affirmations have several shows lined up this summer and fall. Peep their schedule below and look out for more dates to be announced. For more info, visit their official Facebook page.
Aug. 4: Fieldview Festival UK
Sept. 23: Pizza Express Jazz Club, (Double show), London UK
Sept. 28: Bordeaux, FR
Sept. 29: French show TBD
Sept. 30: Beltza Weekend, Spain
Oct. 20: Soultrennes Festival, FR
Nov. 30: TBA - FR