Label: ROC Nation LLC
Released: June 30

No one expected 4:44. There were rumors that Jay Z would release an album that spoke to and answered for the hurt his wife displayed throughout her multiplatform tour de force, Lemonade, but no one—if we’re keeping it a buck—expected it to be good. It’s not that Hov’s never been contrite—songs like “You Must Love Me” and “Song Cry” prove he can bare his soul with the best of them—it’s more that he didn’t instill much confidence in the lead-up to the album’s release. The guest verses he contributed to songs like “Pop Style” and “I Got the Keys” featured stilted flows and stodgy wordplay. He seemed to be knocking the cobwebs off; not yet ready for primetime. Also, Jay Z is a single year younger than Rakim and has a net worth hovering around $810 million. Rap being, as they say, a young person’s game, Hov would be forgiven for not having the wherewithal to crank out a classic rap album this late in the game.

Yet, that’s just what he managed to do.

There’s no formula for a classic rap album, but 4:44 comes damn close to exemplifying the form. Ten songs, one producer, a cohesive soundscape, and a near complete absence of clichéd tropes. The title, as we now know, comes from the time of day Jay says he woke up to record the song that would most directly address the issues plaguing his marriage. That track informs the rest of the album. No I.D. provided carefully crafted erratic soul for Jay to lay out his misgivings, as well as his learnings. The album creeps from sorrowful and remorseful to buoyant and hopeful, all within the span of an economical 36 minutes. It’s a beautiful feat.

It wouldn't be a Jigga album without talk of dollars and cents. And while the overarching theme of freedom through financial security may seem new to some, it’s a been a topic at the top of Jay’s mind since Reasonable Doubt. His game is still mental, only now he’s plotting on copping more art and real estate instead of luxury barges. This is all made better by the fact that Jay is rapping better than he has in years. The boastful ominous presence that made songs like “Come and Get Me” so special is gone, but he sounds nimble and energized. And on tracks like “Marcy Me” he’s completely in the pocket, flowing infinitely like you know who.

What’s more, we see Jay Z embody something new and reaffirm his position at the same time. Any fan can recite lyrics in which he vows to never turn into the person who would make a song like “4:44.” His heart is no longer cold as an assassin. He’s grown to have patience and it’s a sight to behold. He’s been vulnerable before, but not like this. Elsewhere, the barriers continue to fall as he lets us deeper into his family life, sharing that his mother is a lesbian and that he cried tears of joy when she found love after years of quiet suffering. The tears can finally come down his eyes. 

It all makes for a welcome surprise. One we’re not sure we’ll ever get again. But who cares? What other 48-year-old is making classics? Damien Scott