Jay-Z: 4:44 review – now for his side of the story…

(Tidal)
His spats with Kanye, his mother’s sexuality, his betrayal of Beyoncé… the rapper lays it all bare on his 13th album, and Carter-Knowles business is booming

Beyoncé’s last album – 2016’s Lemonade – provoked a range of reactions. The internet’s conspiracy theorists felt its tale of adultery and resolution to be an elaborate hoax, perpetrated to extend the Knowles-Carter family brand. Others reflected that pop is often a soap opera, and that the Beyoncé-Jay-Z double narrative produces arresting art that ignores rulebooks.

Expect more narrowed eyes and wagging tongues, then, for 4:44, Jay-Z’s 13th-odd album, the next riveting instalment. It is named after a track in which Beyoncé’s husband apologises unreservedly for his trespasses: womanising, not being emotionally available, all of it. His matter-of-fact flow slows to a mutter. “And if my children knew / I don’t know even what I would do.” Quite how Jay-Z is planning to keep daughter Blue Ivy off the internet should prove interesting.

It is a short, sharp album, produced entirely by Kanye West’s former mentor No ID – a rarity in hip-hop, and an interesting choice – with just three guests: Frank Ocean on the loping, sing-song Caught Their Eyes, reggae star Damian Marley on the pugilistic Bam and Gloria Carter, Jay-Z’s mum, on Smile.

There’s so much business to attend to in the lyrics. Does Jay-Z out his own mother on Smile? “Momma had four kids but she’s a lesbian/ Had to pretend so long, she’s a thespian.” Mrs Carter Sr weighs in with a poem at the end: “Love who you love.”

Album opener Kill Jay Z, meanwhile, ranges widely, touching briefly on Jay-Z’s former producer/mentee/collaborator Kanye West, whose breakdown last year included an onstage rant about Jay-Z having the power to have him killed. Jay-Z might still be sore about that. “You got hurt cos you did cool by ’Ye / You gave him $20m without blinking/ He gave you 20 minutes onstage.”

Throughout, Jay-Z never sounds happier than when discussing actual business: his best revenge is his paper. In Jay-Z’s hands, the blistering social commentary of Lemonade becomes The Story of OJ, a rumination on blackness stuffed with investment advice. Property and art, in case you’re interested; advice that is soured by Jay-Z’s ill-advised generalising about the savviness of Jewish people.

Seasoned Jay-Z watchers might miss the rapper’s dense 90s flows, but most commercial hip-hop is now made up of easy couplets rather than internal patterns of assonance. Moonlight – loose, excellent – has good gags about current rap tropes (“skrrt!”) and analysis about contemporary hip-hop’s failings (“we stuck in La La Land”). Bitching about the decline of your field is, of course, an occupational hazard of being fortysomething; Marcy Me provides the obligatory reminiscences about Jay’s time as a drug dealer, rather than CEO of a business empire.

Family Feud, meanwhile, deals with age, billionaire status and the infamous “Becky” (“let me alone”) on a track whose gloating masks more insight about the importance of black-owned businesses. “We merrily, merrily eating off these streams…” laughs Jay-Z, whose streaming service hosts 4:44 exclusively for now. “Can I get an “amen” off the congregation?”

“Amen,” answers Beyoncé.

Contributor

Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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