“I dumbed down for the audience to double my dollars.” That was Jay-Z 14 years ago, just before his fake retirement. At the time, it was a remarkable admission. Jay was, if not the best rapper working at the time, at least top three. And here he was, saying that what we’d been hearing all these years was the watered-down, altered-for-consumption version of himself. It also raised questions: How might a Jay-Z album sound if Jay didn’t have to worry about commercial considerations? Jay had his own ideas — how if lyrics sold, truth be told, he’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli — but that never sounded quite right. We’ll never know how that Jay would’ve sounded without any commercial pressure. But now we know how this Jay — the 47-year-old, richer-than-fuck Jay — sounds when numbers are no longer a consideration. In 4:44, Jay has made an album utterly free of commercial consideration, one without a single track for the club or the radio or whatever audience Jay had in mind when he made “Change Clothes.” He’s made a short, compact, soulful, emotionally soul-baring internal journey of an album. And it’s the best thing he’s done in many years.
The last time we heard from Jay, it was 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, a miscalculated mess that drowned itself in syrupy guest-hooks and sleepy mogul-talk. The four-year break between that album and this one is longer than the stretch of time that Jay was supposedly retired for, and the man we hear on 4:44 is strikingly different in every way. Musically, he’s on a whole new trip. As a rapper, he sounds like he’s speaking to himself, not inhabiting the dreams of an entire outside world. Much of the time, he half-ignores the beat, expounding over the top like he’s expansively dictating his memoirs into a tape recorder. He’s kept things brief; at half an hour, 4:44 is far shorter than any previous Jay album, even if you count the Streets Is Watching soundtrack. And for the first time in his career, he’s done the old-school thing and recorded a whole project with a single producer.
Jay’s choice of producer is both fascinating and canny. No I.D. has been making classic rap albums for even longer than Jay; he’s the man who gave Common Sense’s 1994 masterpiece Resurrection its soulful sweep. Lately, he’s been working as an executive at the Capitol Music Group, and he’s been shepherding projects from hugely promising young rappers like Vince Staples and Vic Mensa. (He’s also back working with Common again, helping him craft some of the best old-man rap music in recent memory.) As the producer behind 4:44, No I.D. has carved a skeletal, resonant sound out of enormously expensive samples. The records sampled on 4:44 — Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s In Need Of Love Today,” Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” Nina Simone’s “Four Women” and “Baltimore” — are canonical, instantly recognizable classics. No I.D. isn’t getting his fingers dusty here; he’s consciously putting Jay into conversation with the old masters. And while there’s already been a fury of attention around what Jay says about Kanye West — “You gave him 20 million without blinking / He gave you 20 minutes onstage, fuck was he thinking?” — I think it’s just as striking how No I.D., Kanye’s old mentor, wordlessly addresses his onetime protégé. On “Bam,” No I.D. offers up a vicious chop of Sister Nancy’s deathless reggae banger “Bam Bam.” That’s the same song that Kanye sampled, to breathless effect, on “Famous,” so now here’s No I.D. showing that he can flip the same sample even better.
These beats are lovely and remarkable, but they’re not going to annihilate your car speakers anytime soon. That’s not where Jay is right now. He’s not trying to evoke that screaming out the sunroof, “death to y’all” mood anymore. Instead, he’s doing something that I never expected to hear Jay-Z do. He’s offered himself up, completely and without reservation. He’s let us hear his internal monologue. He’s treated the entire world — or at least that tiny sliver of the entire world who has either Sprint or Tidal — as his therapist. I cannot possibly overstate how weird this is. If you’re old enough, you remember a different Jay-Z, the Jay-Z who became king of New York through sheer sneering cold unemotional arrogant confidence. I first moved to Brooklyn in the summer of 2000, when Vol. 3 was running the world, and I will never forget the way those songs made me feel. This version of Jay was the one kicking models out of his house at five in the morning, the one who toted guns to the Grammys and popped bottles on the White House lawn. He was enormous. He was larger-than-life. He was staring down at the rest of us from the Times Square heights — both figuratively and, since the Rocawear billboard had just gone up, literally. And now Jay has made himself smaller than life. He’s shown us he’s just a man, and sort of a fuckup at that.
Here’s a line that Jay-Z put on an album in the year of our lord 2017: “I suck at love, I need a do-over / I will be emotionally available if I invited you over.” That line is a head-exploder, and there are head-exploders like that all over 4:44. Jay has, in the past, at least admitted that he is capable of feeling human emotions; that’s what “Song Cry” is about. But he’s never shown us his guts like this. He’s never even come close. Jay has said that he called the album 4:44 because that’s what time he woke up one morning and started writing the title track. That song is one long, tearful, soul-ripped-open apology. Parts of it go way too far. Jay goes on record blaming his wife’s miscarriages on himself and his behavior — “because I wasn’t present, your body wouldn’t accept it” — like that’s the way the female reproductive system works. But it’s a huge step, and it shows us the human-being version of this intensely private, enormously famous man in a way that we never could’ve imagined that we would ever see.
Of course, Jay had to do something like this. Beyoncé forced his hand. Lemonade, maybe the best album that anyone released last year, is essentially a concept album about being pissed at Jay for cheating. You can’t make Magna Carta Holy Grail 2 when that’s out there in the world. But it’s still amazing. We hear Jay taking responsibility for the elevator incident: “You egged Solange on / Knowing all along, all you had to say is you was wrong.” We hear the deeply unromantic way that Jay and Beyoncé’s relationship started, back when she was 21 and he was more than a decade older: “I said ‘don’t embarrass me’ instead of ‘be mine’ / That was my proposal for us to go steady.” We hear an entire song about Jay’s mother coming out of the closet as a lesbian, something that was not public knowledge before the album came out, and then we hear his mom give an inspirational spoken-word verse. There’s even a tiny but telling moment where Jay catches himself using the word “midget” and then walks it back.
4:44 isn’t all therapy talk. Jay spends much of the album discussing money, talking about financial security being the only way that black people are going to get anywhere in this country. This is an old topic for Jay; it’s basically what all of Watch The Throne was about. But now he’s getting more poignant and direct with it. “The Story Of O.J.,” especially with its cartoon-Sambo video, is the hardest look that Jay has ever taken at race in America, and I love the way he talks about his art collection on it: “Y’all think it’s bougie, I’m like, it’s fine / But I’m trying to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99.” Elsewhere, he acknowledges that, in making the album a streaming-service exclusive, he’s guaranteed that bootlegs will be flying around out there: “Niggas’ll rip your shit off Tidal just to spite you.” He’s taken the side of the kids in the rap generational war: “Old niggas, stop acting brand new / Like Tupac ain’t have a nose ring too.” He settles old scores, devoting an entire verse to eviscerating the people who run Prince’s estate: “You greedy bastards sold tickets to walk through his house / I’m surprised you ain’t auction off the casket.” And on “Bam,” he lets his old Jay-Z persona out for a few minutes of glorious shit-talk, basically using the song to establish that the character he plays is only one side of the real-life Shawn Carter that we hear on the rest of the album.
But even when Jay is talking about old subjects, he still sounds new. He’s proved everything he’s ever wanted to prove, and so this is a dispatch from on high, delivered as if Jay doesn’t particularly care whether the world jumps on board or not. And it’s such a huge departure from Jay’s past work that I’ve already heard people calling it his best album. Well, it’s not. That’s pure goofiness. The Jay-Z of 2017 is simply not the same rapper that the Jay of 1997 was, and the fact that he’s even operating anywhere near peak capacity is remarkable. If anything, 4:44 is a late-career curio, an album that exists outside the narrative of Jay-Z albums. It’s just not fair to even attempt to compare it to, say, Vol. 2. It’s more like Dr. Dre’s Compton: An indulgent and openhearted dispatch from an old master who’s currently doing work way better than anyone could’ve really expected. Nobody’s really talking about Compton anymore, and there’s a good chance that nobody will really be talking about 4:44 in a couple of years. But it’s still a brave, thoughtful, rewarding piece of work. We’re richer with it out in the world — or, at least, we are if we can figure out how to hear it.
4:44 is out now. If you’re all logged in, you can stream it below.