One of the most revered figures in hip hop history, and perhaps the biggest name to ever emerge from the East Coast, Jay Z’s signature deadpan, matter-of-fact style of rapping has been accompanied by music of a grandiose nature throughout a lot of his career. Take 2001’s ‘The Blueprint’, for example, which to me is still one of the finest hip hop albums this side of ‘Illmatic.’ That record is generous with it’s brilliant string and brass arrangements. He has been involved with a number of “big anthems”, such as the infectious ‘Empire State Of Mind’ featuring Alicia Keys. Furthermore, he is the man who married Beyonce and befriended Barack Obama. Quite some career. But with the thirteenth instalment of Hov’s decade spanning discography, everything is stripped back.
‘4:44’ is charmingly raw, and it almost sounds like a rough demo. In an age where hip hop is reconnecting with it’s “younger sibling of punk rock” roots and shedding itself of the autotune ridden excess that plagued the genre throughout the late 2000s, it is rather fitting that one of the godfathers of contemporary rap is putting out something a little more minimalistic. The rather basic, if not a bit Kasabian-esque, album art is a statement of intent, and serves as a proverbial tin, on which, what the album does is said.
With opener ‘Kill Jay Z’, there is no epic buildup, as the listener is thrown straight into the first verse, set to a bittersweet sounding ’70s soul influenced beat, in keeping with the traditions of East Coast. He drops lines like “Kill Jay Z/They’ll never love you” and “You walkin’ around like you invincible”, as a means of addressing the idea of killing the ego, perhaps a sign that this rapper is maturing and embracing it, a far cry from the days of this man who once proclaimed that “he who does not feel me/Is not real to me/Therefore he doesn’t exist” The lyric from this song that has gotten people really talking though, is “You egged Solange on/Knowing all along all you had to say you was wrong”, which, of course, references Beyonce’s sister’s attack on him in an elevator a few years ago.
‘The Story Of O.J.’ follows, which beautifully samples Nina Simone’s ‘Four Women’, the pianos and basslines delivering music that sounds so quintessentially New York. Other highlights include the funky ‘Caught Their Eyes’ with Frank Ocean on guest vocals, ‘Legacy’, the album closer which also has a nice Big Apple-esque jazziness to the music, that provides the backbone for Jay Z uttering some of his more reflective lyrics, and the collaboration with Damian Marley, ‘Bam’, which appropriately has a reggae tinge. The title track includes an interesting lyric which some people have interpreted as an admission of guilt towards Beyonce regarding his alleged affair: “I apologise/I womanise”
The album is only ten tracks long, so couple that with the production and it is never in danger of becoming bloated and self indulgent. However, it is far from being an album that could be described as fun and carefree. Ten songs with introspective, navel gazing lyrics set to downcast beats that are more suited to lonesomely wandering the streets late at night than some of the swagger friendly stuff that Jay Z has assumed mic in front of in the past. While, of course, not on the level of ‘The Blueprint’ or ‘Reasonable Doubt’, a very commendable and mature effort from J-Hova.
Rating Outta Ten: A satisfying seven