Jay-Z’s ‘4:44’ Shows That Our Heroes Can Fall, Rise, and Teach From An Epiphany

When we think of talent diminishing over time, we look to the aging sport star. Often, the Michael Jordan/Washington Wizards parallel is used. In retrospect, although he wasn’t suspending our disbelief in gravity in his youth, Jordan was still effective when he ended his career at 40 years old. Every once in a while, there would be a burst of speed. The fadaway jumper was still working. (He still averaged 20 points and was the only Wizard to play all 82 games.) No matter the time period, it’s the consensus that Jordan is the greatest player to ever play the game.

Cognitive ability is a whole different animal. Some consider rap music a young man’s game where there’s a clear divide between old and new fans. Despite the wisdom, some fans urge older acts to clear the way for the new wave.  Jay-Z‘s 2013 album, Magna Carta Holy Grail was more so a celebration as a modern day artist with lyrics as his canvas as depicted in the song, “Picasso Baby.”

“Leonardo Da Vinci flows
Riccardo Tisci Givenchy clothes
See me throning at the Met”

While reactions to the album were mixed, an appreciation for both the art and artist increases in value over time. Jay-Z mainly stuck to guest verses such as DJ Khaled‘s “I Got The Keys,” Beyonce’s 2015 opus, Lemonade, got fans wondering what if Jay was working on a full length. Did Jay still have much to say in a forum where he has seen it all and done it all?

“Kill Jay-Z” sets a template for where the entire album build it’s foundation. It’s a moment of introspection that splinters throughout the entire album.  Jay explains to iHeartRadio  that this song was about the dismantling of the ego.  Throughout his accent to the all time great status, Jay-Z is the cape that Shawn Carter dawns.

Batman is known for his callous and cold approach to fighting crime in Gotham. Bruce Wayne, although a bit more personable as the billionaire, still mourns his parents lost and uses his alter ego as a symbol to be greater than himself. There’s a time to be Bruce Wayne and a time to be Batman. Shawn Carter is figuring out how to use ego as a tool other than using it as a constant. The “bright lines can turn you into a monster” as Jay said on Drake‘s 2010’s “Light Up.” There’s a certain viciousness that comes with being determined.

You had no father, you had the armor
But you got a daughter, gotta get softer

The second part of the song addressed Kanye West as a cautionary tale in what how ego goes out of control when it’s unchecked. This isn’t the only time this is addressed – throughout the album there are little tabs that can be depicted as tough love.

Within calls for the music industry to come together, but with transgressions with West, Jay demonstrates his raps as a weapon. There’s a time and a place to use your ego, however. “Bam,” featuring Damian Marley, recalls to the braggadocios raps of the past as a reminder to people that this side of himself can come out if warranted.

A call to ownership, a blueprint if you will, surrounds the album in black capitalism. “The Ballad of OJ,” the chorus is a statement to no matter what the material status or shade of brown black people are, society is going to look at race in singularity.  The American Dream, in some instances, shows a dream world of empty materialism. Jay gives lessons of appreciating art and property ownership. That’s the real instance where the culture will make a difference. Will it be in wealth that can be passed down or for admiration on social media posts?

“Smile,” featuring his mother, Gloria Carter, is a liberation for both of them. This is the first time that it’s shown that his mother was a lesbian. The first verse and poem at the end celebrates her liberation through bad times of his youth. The third verse, which is a absolute display of skill is a celebration of Jay breaking the mold of his drug dealer past and against those who thing he lost a step.

A big motif is musical ownership which shows it’s form in two ways. “Caught Their Eyes” tells of Jay’s conversation with Prince before he died and his wishes. It is known throughout Prince’s life that he was a huge advocate for artists owning their material. He even chose Tidal to exclusively house his music because of what the streaming service represents ownership and royalty wise. Much to his disdain and against the wishes of Prince, his catalog was put on Apple Music and Spotify after his death.

He touches on this again in “Moonlight.” (“And you pawned all your chains
And they run off with your masters.“) In the age of the 360 deal, where labels are grabbing a piece of all they can get due to diminishing sales, Jay not only is challenging artists to break that old mold of standard record deals, but to bring originally to their craft.

The title track is an open confession/apology to his wife Beyonce over a powerful sample of Hannah Williams’ “Late Nights and Heartbreak.”  In “Song Cry,” off of 2001’s The Blueprint, Jay depicts different relationships that end once Jay’s growing fame detaches himself from.  Money cannot buy you pure love or happiness.

“We was so happy poor, but when we got rich
That’s when our signals got crossed and we got flipped” – Song Cry

The famous chorus shows him not be able to be emotional. 4:44 shows a vulnerable side that’s not in a typical rap-cadence. It’s almost broken, like Jay is directly talking to Beyonce or writing a letter as the thoughts come down. After all, this was recorded on Beyonce’s mic.  There’s something interesting in reference to the numbers that he uses both in the title and this song.

Jay stated that he woke up at 4:44 am to write the song. In numerology, the number four in a triplet has a significance.  Angel number terms have 444 representing honesty and inner-wisdom. The foundation of this album hinges on both, so looking in those terms give a definite power to it.

The sequencing in 4:44 is key, as the next song, “Family Feud,” features Beyonce‘s vocals paired with The Clark Sisters‘ “Ha Ya” (Eternal Life). (“I told my wife the spiritual shit really work.“) There’s no doubt that in the reunion of forgiveness, Beyonce helped Jay-Z find Shawn Carter. The spiritual aspects of 4:44 are apparent in Jay’s maturity building a family. Generational curses that was once touched on 2006’s “Beach Chair” and 2016’s “Spirtual” come up again in the story of his grandfather’s molestation of his aunt. This leads Jay to take pieces of spirituality from all different sources and make him well rounded.

The back to back pairing of “Marcy Me” and “Legacy” is a perfect bookend to the album – both recalling to the past and looking toward the future. “Marcy Me” plays like a grainy home video with the reoccurring sampled keys of Gil Vicente‘s “Todo o Mundo e Ninguém.” “Legacy” is a living will to Blue Ivy. Ultimately, all signs go back to building a future for his children long after he’s gone.

In the title track, Jay tells of the hesitance of when the day comes to tell his children about what he did.  4:44 is catching up with an uncle that you idolized since when you were younger. You sit, reminisce, and maybe get a little disappointed at some of the things he did. There will be a disconnect because of our age bracket and where technology is going. However, because of his flaws, you love him more, and the return investment on that love is the wisdom. Heroes age and change as we do. They fall and rise again.

No I.D. produced the entire album, and frankly, the approach he depicts in a interview with Rolling Stone was probably the only way we would have gotten this instance of Jay-Z – the soulful, vintage undercurrent of music served to pull a conduit of truth. 4:44 is a conversation in three acts; one part critique, one part therapy session, and one part classroom.

Featured Image Credit: IBL/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK