Label: Roc-A-Fella/Roc Nation
Producers: No I.D.
Features: Gloria Carter, Frank Ocean, Damian Marley
4:44 is the sound of Jay-Z putting his house in order. That he needed to take such drastic, self-lacerating measures to do so, revealing through his lyrics his failures as a husband and father, is a testament to the severe disarray he had wrought.
Age and experience enable the humbling. It’s impossible to imagine thirtysomething Jay—Dynasty Jay—regretfully rapping about stabbing Lance "Un" Rivera. Less than three years from 50, Jay is wise enough to know that his most valid criticism will be of himself (even though he makes time for gentle scolding of the youth), and that what comes next is the persnickety paperwork of legacy building. To have a tidy house is to set an example for others to follow and, at 47, Jay is a graying leader who can still command attention, sounding like water rapping, “My therapist said I relapsed/I said, "Prehaps I Freudian slipped in European whips." He’s smooth describing the accumulated clutter of a life lived fantastically. And the album by which he achieves this is just as collected: one rapper, one producer, 10 songs, 36 minutes. Guided by the careful hand of Chicago legend No I.D., Jay puts everything in its right place—even when he's taking his time to arrive on a particular phrase or word, as he does with some of the more spacious verses.
“At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your house in order,” Leonard Cohen told the New Yorker’s David Remnick last year, shortly before his death at the age of 82. “It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels. Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable.”
The cad husband taking his wonderful life for granted, only to be brought to his knees by the truth of the hurt he’s caused, that’s a cliché too. But coming from perhaps the greatest rapper to ever live it should not be underestimated as a potent shock to the system. “I’ll fuck up a good thing if you let me” is the type of line you feel in your chest. That this honesty unspools in such a tight musical framework makes the pain flash all the brighter. It’s clarifying, packaged as it is with pro-black business and life advice—some of it impractical, some of it accompanied by goofy jokes—like you're talking to Dad. As the final song, “Legacy,” makes clear, hurt can be inherited, just like money, if it’s not dealt with. “You see my father, son of a preacher man/Whose daughter couldn't escape the reach of the preacher's hand/That charge of energy set all the Carters back/It took all these years to get to zero, in fact.” Jay wants his legacy to be one of black excellence and success, beginning first with his family—especially his three children.
Blue asks her father “What’s a will?” and then No I.D. juliennes Donny Hathaway’s fine-grained voice into smaller portions. So soft and slow, Jay’s voice sounds like counsel given in confidence late at night. (A will is necessary because death is certain.) Kitchen table talk, when everyone else in the house is asleep and the elder person needs you to hear what they’re saying, so before they speak they lay a hand across yours where it rests there on the wood. There’s nothing to compare this to in Jay’s catalog, among the many classic albums on the mantel of his discography. 4:44 is an album only a parent could write after contemplating the loss of it all—not just love or marriage, but a lifetime of work that should be inherited, an endowment, a gift. —Ross Scarano