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JAY-Z finds his third act on 4:44

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Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images
Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images
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JAY-Z

Album: 4:44
Label: Roc Nation

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JAY-Z sounds old. More than that, he sounds tired. On 4:44’s title track and centerpiece, he sounds like he’s rapping into a cellphone; there’s a tinny, 8-track immediacy as the rapper disembowels himself over his much-publicized infidelities. By the third verse, he’s picturing his kids hearing the song, barely even on the beat—“You risked that for Blue?” he asks, a crack audible in his voice, Hannah Williams sample wailing indefinitely. As the story goes, Jay woke up and wrote the track at 4:44 in the morning, a cosmic reminder of his devotion to Beyoncé—they were both born on the fourth day of their respective months, and have matching “IV” tattoos on their ring fingers. Accordingly enough, the track sounds like a dark night of the soul, as though he ripped off the verse in a hotel bathroom before the sun was even up. This is the type of drama that drives 4:44, and it’s the type of thing you could only give a shit about if you were already deeply invested in JAY-Z’s personal saga.

Lord knows Jay is. Hip-hop is a medium of self-mythologizing—you could argue it’s the very engine that drives it—but the god emcee Jay-Hova’s ego especially knows no bounds. He’s been writing his story since Reasonable Doubt, the wiseass ruefully pushing crack under a lamppost who hustled an album a year until he retired to a life of board rooms, Beyoncé, and billion-dollar dreams. 4:44 represents a sort of third act for the rapper, a return to earth after a decade-plus of flawed flights of fancy. It lives and dies on your engagement with the story of its creator, and, as Jay would have it, with the past two decades of hip-hop, every style he’s inhabited, mishandled, or outlived—the mafioso don, the shiny suits, the death of Auto-Tune, Chris Martin. Whether you latched onto the saga at Reasonable Doubt, or the eternal bounce of that Annie sample, or when he finally found, in Kanye, a producer whose compositions matched Jay’s black-Sinatra aspirations, 4:44 serves as a kind of culmination. It’s not an actualization—that happened on The Blueprint, in 2001—but rather a denouement to this long-unspooling narrative.

The problem, of course, is that if you didn’t follow along with that eight-album, eight-year hot streak—which ended in, good lord, 2003—Jay will come across as a self-satisfied asshole on 4:44, more brand than man. It doesn’t help that much of his post-Black Album second act has been taken up by fussy, ill-fitting records: the turgid stabs at rap radio of Kingdom Come or The Blueprint 3; the fan-service cosplay of American Gangster; the ugly Illuminati lifestyle rap of Watch The Throne and Magna Carta Holy Grail. (The things that work on Watch The Throne belong to Kanye, not Jay.) All of which is to say that 4:44 is rap music that plays to a very specific demographic of rap fans—specifically, old ones. They (we) reacted joyously when the album came out last Friday and over-performed its decidedly uninspired cellphone-carrier announcement. But since then a backlash has reared its head, chipping away at its aura via criticisms of Jay’s off-handed anti-Semitism, his relentless insistence upon unfashionable notions of capitalist success, and that raspy, slightly out-of-shape flow.

The thorny thing is that this is part of the album’s appeal, too. You always know you’re a little too close to an artwork when you think its flaws are its virtues. But for people who drank the Kool-Aid back when Jay was flexing about Motorola two-way pagers rather than dubious Sprint cross-promotions, that very haggard timelessness is part of the appeal—like seeing Harrison Ford schlub it around as Han Solo one last time, still hale and whip-smart even though, hoo boy, that guy is 74. Jay’s only 47, but that’s practically geological in rap. It’s never been exactly clear how a rapper is supposed to grow old on record. Most throw in the towel, like Ice Cube or, to a lesser extent, Big Boi. Stylists like Q-Tip or Ka stick to their guns, finding quiet innovation within their established parameters. Pure rappers have to keep the fire alive, somehow, stay crazy, like 2 Chainz or Gucci Mane. Jay’s a little bit of both of these, but he’s also bigger than them, the “best rapper alive” as global brand. Nobody thinks he is anymore—probably not even Jay—but he has to carry himself as if he is on record. Because if not, who is he?

4:44 is captivating because it both upholds that version of himself and buckles beneath its weight. As with our other preeminent long-form storytelling medium, television, the appeal here is in seeing a man of immense power and likability broken, weakened, and oh-so-relatable. Hell, he even goes Tony Soprano-beating-up-Perry on the all-purpose diss track “Moonlight.” He is aided immeasurably in this effort by producer No I.D., whose 10 beats here manage at once to keep Jay in his comfort zone—a mid-tempo stretch of luxurious soul samples chopped into an unconscionably expensive ambient blur, like a glorious, gauzy prestige TV show.

We don’t so much hear his side of the Lemonade saga as we do witness its repercussions—and anyway, anyone who likes this album will be much more thrilled to hear him defend the insufferable art-world name-dropping of Magna Carta as a Jeezy-esque tool for black empowerment (“Y’all think it’s bougie, I’m like, it’s fine / But I’m tryin’ to give you a million dollars’ worth of game for $9.99”). The album’s other attention-getting moments work as installments in the grander Shawn Carter saga: The off-handed revelation of his mom’s sexuality on “Smile” is a continuation of her central role on The Black Album; last time Blue Ivy was on a track, she just yawped, only a couple days old, but on “Legacy,” she speaks. She is asking her dad about wealth management. She is her father’s daughter.

It’s all in there, at this point—mom, daughter, wife, failure, future, board rooms, fine art, the lamppost, even Kanye, whose own self-image rivals Jay’s. “I turned my life into a nice first-week release date,” he says on “The Story Of O.J.” a template for capitalist transcendence that few would ever attempt. It’s Jay’s dream, the American one, something so large he struggled to put words to for years, rapping from a beach chair and lying about his age, trying on various pop styles to see what might stick. That he finally got it all out there on 4:44 proves, decades later, how titanic was the myth he dreamed of himself. What could be more insufferable than that? What could be more American?