Jay Z's focus has been on things much bigger than music over the last few years. Sure, he has popped up with a number of notable feature verses since 2013's Magna Carta Holy Grail—his feature on Rick Ross' "The Devil Is a Lie" is a highlight—but as far as solo work goes, Jay has been dormant.
And who could blame him? The legendary rapper recently became a father of three, was the first rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and continues to try to shake up the business world. When you're in the middle of solidifying a sports agency and trying to build an artist-centric streaming platform, you don't have as much time to drop new albums.
The drought appears to be over, however, after it was finally revealed on Sunday night that 4:44, Jay's mysterious new project, would be a full-fledged album. And there are hints that Jay might be throwing it back on the new project—his reps recently confirmed the hyphen in his name is back, perhaps signaling a return to his old ways. His name is also all caps; guess it's JAY-Z SZN.
Here's everything we know about the 4:44 project so far.
4:44 started out as as a weird, unexplained ad campaign, with a series of flesh-colored ads popping up in early June. Eventually, the connection was made to Jay, and before we knew it would be an album, a release date was revealed by HipHopDX, marking down a release date of June 30.
We got further confirmation of this once Jay dropped a brief trailer of the project. The new 30-second spot flashed the date for all the world to see, teasing 4:44 for the same June 30 date.
Jay isn't exactly Mr. Social Media—he promised he'd delete the Twitter app off his phone after a long salute to his peers in the rap game—so any word on the featured artists on 4:44 isn't coming from him. At this point, the most you can say is that you can't rule anyone out, because Jay has been showing love to a diverse collection of artists lately.
Take a look at some of the inclusions in his list of shout-outs. There are a ton of no-brainers who made the cut, like Nas and André 3000, but Jay showed love to the new generation of artists as well. One particularly interesting inclusion was Playboi Carti, whose song "Magnolia" got a direct acknowledgment from Jay and is currently playing in the background of ads for Sprint's partnership with Tidal.
I promise I'm not drunk . Lord Pusha . Carti (Magnolia incredible)ASAP Sean P , Mobb , cudi . Tyler , earl, Snoop!!( almost played myself)— Mr. Carter (@S_C_) June 16, 2017
You could sit and try to parse through his full list of acknowledgments all day and come up with 50 different answers. It's also worth noting that he lumped a group of newer, established rappers—Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Jay Electronica, and Chance the Rapper—right alongside some of the best to ever do it. Electronica and Cole are part of his Roc Nation imprint, so he has incentive to big up his guys, but it wouldn't be shocking to see any/all of those artists on 4:44.
All we have at the moment is speculation. No features have been confirmed yet, but if you look at what his last couple albums have shaped up like, expect a star-studded cast to flank Jay.
There's one prominent rumor regarding the production for 4:44 at the moment—it could be produced exclusively by the legendary No I.D. That's the word from filmmaker Chris Black, anyway.
New Jay-Z album, 4:44, produced entirely by No I.D.— Chris Black (@TheBlack) June 19, 2017
i guess i can finally reveal that.— Chris Black (@TheBlack) June 19, 2017
We can't dismiss Black's claim, but it does raise a few eyebrows because of how big a change a pace it would represent. Jay tends to fall into a groove with one producer for a lot of his projects—Magna Carta was heavy on beats from Timbaland, while Blueprint 3 had six of its 15 songs with No I.D. attached—there's no real precedent for him to launch an album with a single producer.
These two have been working together for a while, though. Jay Electronica shared a picture of the duo in the studio together way back in 2014, long before we had any idea 4:44 would be a thing.
Jay Z and No I.D. working in Paris.— JAY Z Daily (@JAY_Z_Daily) June 19, 2017
Jay Electronica posted this photo in 2014 pic.twitter.com/PDvs5bYb2I
If the art we've seen attached to the project so far is any indication, you should expect a pretty bare bones effort for the album artwork. The announcement of the official album used the same color scheme as the ads that have been popping up everywhere.
Expect something in the same vein when 4:44 releases.
We already have a small piece of one off the songs from 4:44, courtesy of a trailer that dropped on Sunday evening. "Adnis," which doubles as the name of Jay's father, plays in the background of the advertisement, with Jay spitting a few bars about messages he never shared with his deceased dad.
Jay has mentioned his father in his songs before, but dedicating a full song to him is definitely a new step for him.
Aside from "Adnis," we don't have snippets, hints, or even a tracklist to comb through yet, with under two weeks to go until the project drops. The only thing we know for sure is that you'll only be able to stream the project on Tidal, so if you're a user of one of the other major streaming services, you might get left out in the cold.
Thematically, the reveal of "Adnis" hints at Jay's focus on family in the new project. Rap tends be a young man's game, so Jay's moving into uncharted territory here; everyone is waiting to see what a 47-year-old titan has in the vault, because there's very little precedent for it. Other rap greats have seen their stars fade by the time they reach their late 40's, while Jay has spent his latter years rubbing elbows with President Obama and standing alongside the biggest pop star in the world.
Even if you're not a Jay fan, you'd have to admit this creates an interesting opportunity for him to change the expectations for the genre. Similar questions will be asked about 4:44 as they were of Magna Carta Holy Grail—what does Jay have left to share, and how much does he feel like he has left to prove? But that sort of misses the point here. Hip-hop often boils down to a constant struggle among its participants to prove they're better than everyone else in the game.
Jay doesn't have to do that. He has an unassailable legacy regardless of what 4:44 sounds like, and he's no longer reliant on his own musical output as his primary line of work. This allows him to focus on themes and tropes that aren't necessarily common in hip-hop, and to push the genre in a different direction should he choose to do so.
Regardless of how long he has been absent, his name carries weight in the industry. Here's hoping he still has a little bit of trailblazing left in him.