Jay-Z’s newest album, 4:44, has been met with almost universal acclaim, with many hailing it as a return to form for the legendary rapper. Before the album’s release, most critics had come to the conclusion that Jay’s best days were behind him. He hadn’t had a truly great solo album in almost 10 years, and seemed to rely on collaboration with Kanye West and other big names to stay relevant. But now, he once again has an album that truly feels modern. What changed? Well, for the first time in a while, Jay stopping looking at the (99) problems in the world and instead looked inwards. He came out with some genuinely insightful thoughts about love, success, and the modern man.
4:44 was first thought to be a response to Beyonce’s fantastic visual album Lemonade but it isn’t really. Jay does talk about his complicated relationship with his wife and owns up to many of the mistakes he made as a husband on tracks like “Kill Jay-Z. But the album is about much more than that. It’s about a man who has spent his whole life conquering, only to stop and wonder what it all really means. Jay’s hardly the first artist to get more introspective with age, but few do it with the grace and tenacity that Jay shows on this album.
On the album, he discusses the inconsistencies he sees in himself, wondering how he can be so filled with confidence one moment only to feel worthless and alone the next. On “Smile,” he wonders whether any of us can break free from the lies with which we’ve chosen to live. On “Legacy,” he talks about the pain of learning about his grandfather’s history of sexual abuse towards his grandmother. On the titular track, he acknowledges his fear of having his children grow up and discover all the shameful things he has done, including cheating on their mom. He’s looking at the world through the lens of fatherhood. And all along the way, he struggles with what it means to be a good man, a good husband, and a good dad.
The album is, at times, painful to listen to, but that’s only because of the raw honesty and intensity Jay brings to every track. He’s filled with regret, anger, and a whole lot of questions. Jay has never been someone who claims to have all the answers, but his genuine attempt to understand himself and his place in the world now that he has kids has resulted in one of the great rap albums of 2017.