Jay-Z's thirteenth album sees him take a sharp turn.Roc Nation, 2017
8.3 / 10
The cynical way to approach 4:44 is it’s the end product of market testing and feedback. The market demands grounded hip-hop artists. Okay, not wholly grounded, but more grounded than usual. It rewards homier music with more intrinsic meaning than, say, The Blueprint. So, Jay-Z, an artist who has spent most of his career making albums that sound expensive, has crafted his most down-to-earth album to date.
4:44 has no bangers. The album is over and done with in under forty minutes. You could say the changes are at least in part because it tests well. Heck, you could argue this is his second attempt at conveying humility after Magna Carta Holy Grail. On that album, he asked us to think of the poor rich people. If that’s your perspective, the sole likely compliment you’ll give this record is that this is closer to its mark than the album that had Justin Timberlake sing its title track’s hook.
For all of that, though, Jay-Z sounds relieved to be making music like this. He hasn’t abandoned his Hov flow. However, he’s far more willing to let his instrumentals walk away with the show while he shakes his head and offers his thoughts in between cigar puffs. But there are problems. He’s a bit clumsy with his storytelling. Also, he’s a bit overeager to talk about how cute his daughter is. And he’s such a polite guest that he allows Damian Marley to stay.
All that being said, my favorite music moment of the year might be from “The Story of O.J.”. Here, Jay-Z says “O.J. like, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.“, at which point Jay-Z leaves a pregnant pause. It’s as though he’s sorting through both his emotions at hearing it as well as how he should react. Finally, he says, “…okay“. A younger, hungrier Jay-Z wouldn’t allow such a moment to exist on his record. And he’d have missed something wonderful in throwing it out. Market tested or not, Jay-Z’s found something that works here with easily his best solo album in a decade, and I kind of hope he stays in this fugue.