Jay Z's 4:44 is easily his most personal project to date, instantly drawing comparisons to albums in other genres. There are few points of comparison for 4:44 within the hip-hop canon, because the genre is dominated by hyper-masculinity and boasting rather than self-reflection.
The easy comparison to draw for Jay's new project came from his own household; Beyonce's Lemonade was a startling dive into the couple's relationship and ultimately her forgiveness for his transgressions. When Jay opened up about his failings as a husband on 4:44, it was hard not to hear it as a direct response to Lemonade.
No I.D., the man responsible for helping Jay put 4:44 together, says any response wasn't the intent of the broader project. During an extended interview with The New York Times, No I.D. said he never spoke with Jay about Lemonade directly, and that they wanted the album to be an organic expression of what s going on in Jay's mind.
"We never directly spoke about that album. Mainly because if he talks about himself, it’s going to bleed into that regardless," he said. "But there’s a difference in talking about it for the sake of response and for the sake of honesty and the truth. The truth needs to explain why you are the way you are, why you did what you did. We know what happened. We got it. But what were the circumstances that led to this and how do you feel about it?"
But No I.D. also admitted he created the beat for the title track, "4:44," in an attempt to goad Jay Z into addressing his family matters. The producer claims he didn't see Jay record his verses for the song, but that it hit him hard when he finally heard Jay's contribution to the track.
"One that I didn’t see him record that really hit me was obviously "4:44." Me, him and Guru, his [recording] engineer, knew that we didn’t want him to do an album of Lemonade response. We just wanted him to respond and then let it be and still touch on other things," he said. "I created that beat to box him into telling that story. I put the sample from the singer Hannah Williams — it starts off with, 'I find it so hard/When I know in my heart/I’m letting you down everyday.' I remember him hearing it and looking at me like, 'O.K., fine.'"
Even if No I.D. was trying to coax Jay Z into addressing some of his dirty laundry, it's too sprawling a project to boil it down to a response to Lemonade. He fires shots at a number of today's biggest rappers, speaks on the black experience in America, and even reflects on leaving a legacy and wealth behind for his children. The thread of vulnerability connects the two projects, but ultimately Jay's airing of grievances and beef is much different than Beyonce's.
And that's a great thing. Jay Z could have rested on his laurels and coasted the rest of his life, having already turned in one of the greatest careers in rap history. Instead, he offered a partial reinvention at age 47, challenging the genre's constructs and providing listeners with a revealing look into his soul. And if for whatever reason you haven't been able to listen to it yet, don't worry—it should be dropping on your streaming service of choice very soon.