First Listen: Jay-Z’s “4:44,” an Album of Love and Wealth

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StFelix-Jay-Z-4-44-An-Album-of-Love-and-Wealth

Jay-Z opens “4:44”—an album that has been the singular sound of my Brooklyn neighborhood since it was released, eighteen or so hours ago—with the song “Kill Jay-Z.” A song of the same name by a younger Jay would have been a rhapsodic spree, involving taunts to his peers, daring them to take him down. Here, though, Jay-Z looks that younger man in the eye, and asks him to let go: “I know people backstab you, I felt bad, too / But this ‘fuck everybody’ attitude ain’t natural,” he cautions. Structurally, “Kill Jay Z” initiates absolution, representing a foundational admission of sin that allows him to chase redemption for the rest of this tightly conceptualized project. On “4:44,” it is almost startling how plainly he takes the blame for having spoiled something good. “I’ve seen the innocence leave your eyes,” he says on the title track, a frank apology to the woman he married and then cheated on. In an interview, Jay-Z said that the song arrived to him in his sleep, and he wrote it at 4:44 in the morning. Beyoncé’s film “Lemonade” similarly begins with an image of a demise brought on by the psychic stress of infidelity. Her agony ended in triumph. Jay Z’s ends differently.

There is an undercurrent of helplessness in “4:44”—in the artist’s fear that he is incapable of loving completely. This fear is countered by an unshakable, nearly frantic faith in wealth. “My wife in the crib feedin’ the kids liquid gold,” he boasts on “Family Feud.” Jay-Z believes that systemic uplift might be an instrument of communal reparation, a way to heal the people we have hurt. A good friend of mine joked that “4:44” was a “black capitalist manifesto.” Not without some slick-tongued gloating, he exhorts younger artists to maintain ownership of their work, to think long-term. He devotes an entire verse of “Caught Their Eye” to castigating Prince’s estate for not being guided by the artist’s wishes after his death. “This guy had ‘slave’ on his face,” he says, referring to Prince’s protracted protest of Warner Brothers during the nineties. “You think he wanted the masters with his masters?” he asks, referring to the wars between streaming services for the rights to Prince’s catalogue. The actions of L. Londell McMillan, the black lawyer who represented Prince and who advised Prince’s estate to sue the parent company of Jay-Z’s streaming service, Tidal, for copyright infringement, have no doubt disturbed Jay from a legal standpoint, but the betrayal goes deeper. On “Legacy,” the album’s concluding track, the voice of Jay-Z’s daughter Blue Ivy floats in: “Daddy, what’s a will?” she asks. The question is loaded. To Jay, spiritual and financial wills are tied. Money is a love he knows how to practice. It is a love that stays. He answers her: “Generational wealth, that’s the key. My parents ain’t have shit, so that ship started with me.”

In “The Story of O. J.,” Jay gives us his sort of morality tale, using the example of O. J. Simpson, who famously said that his success had made him raceless. “Still nigga, still nigga,” Jay-Z says, pointing his finger at the sort of archetypal, upwardly mobile black person who forgets where he comes from when he reaches the top. The video that accompanies the song alters its tone. A cartoon Jay-Z, made to look like a Sambo-era, animalized pickaninny, traipses through Brooklyn. The black people around him suffer their historical torments—cotton-picking, then segregation, then red-lining. He is lynched. Now an angel in the sky, he takes up guardianship of his home town, showering the black inhabitants with dollars and coins, as if to say, in his heavenly America, wealth would be weather.

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