It’s been 4 years since Jay Z released Magna Carta his last studio album. That project was deeply dense with a strong themes speaking on religion politics and government conspiracies weaved into a concise narratives. So much has happened in that time in America in particular with the emergence of the trap sound, Donald Trump and a set of Twins for Jay & Beyonce.
Kill Jay Z is an introspective third person narrative that finds him dissecting his behaviour over the past few years. Painfully recounting the time he shot his brother who was in a menacing state of mind due to his crack cocaine drug addiction. This happened when he was 12 years old. Jay also maturely asses the fact that he must overcome his fatherless upbringing and have a softer exterior to be a good father. He raps “Almost went Eric Beneit / let the baddest girl in the world get away/I don’t even know what else to say / Nigga never go Eric Benneit.” This is a direct response to his questions of infidelity. This is supported by a rough around the edges No ID inspired beat. The clever soulful vocal interjections are layered into the sample and gives this track the feel of a sermon to the congregation.
The Story of O.J. is the tale of black men in America as he raps in the chorus “Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga, rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga, still nigga, still nigga.” Jay paints the stark picture of the reality of the fact that it matters little if you’re rich of poor you’re still viewed as sub human by some sections of society. The O.J reference is comically used as Simpson once thought he’d attained a status that transcended his race. He later found out that it couldn’t be further than the truth. His reference to Jewish wealth is timely and paints a strong portrait of the economic disparity between the two. Again, No ID is on the boards with a classic Nina Simone vocal sample beautifully woven into a thought provoking Piano piece that sits perfectly within the beat.
Producer No ID, crafts a wonderfully soulful backdrop in Smile which allows Jay to show his overall growth and storytelling ability. He touches on his mother’s sexuality, in the following lines “Mama had four kids / but she’s a lesbian / had to pretend so long that she’s thespian / had to hide in the closet / so she medicate / society shame and the pain was too much to take / cried tears of joy when you fell in love / don’t matter to me if it’s a him or her.” Jay also raps poetically in further verses about his ability to create a cohesive track without a pen and his ascension from the street corner to a successful entrepreneur all whilst throwing jabs skillfully at the doubters and naysayers. This is Jay at his most fluent lyrically.
Caught Their Eyes is draped in 70’s nostalgia from the vocal arrangements that flavor the laid back tempo with culture. It’s a super slick sample as NO ID crafts this jubilant intuitive contemplative piece. In the first verse Jay fires off some real legendary lines “Round friends who kill they friends / then hug their friends mother and show up at the funeral/ complete with blank stares invisible ink / I had to read things that wasn’t there / memories may sneak down my cheek / But I could see a side-eye in my sleep.” It’s his ability to draw imagery that reminds you that he really came through the mire it to do it big in every conceivable way. Jay ultimately explains that he’s the all-seeing eye that knows the game of life better than anyone in the music industry. His longevity kind of confirms his words.
Title track 4:44 is Jay opening up in a sort of love letter fashion to Beyonce. He’s not ashamed to apologise about his floors during his relationship with the megastar. This is grown man rap as its not openly common place in rap songs to actually proclaim your love for a woman unfortunately. In the final verse he lays it on the line as spits “And if my children knew / I don’t even know what I would do / If they ain’t look at me the same / I would prob’ly die with all the shame / “You did what with who?” / what good is a menage a trois when you have a soulmate?” It’s this level of honesty that’s distinctly displays Jay’s ability to throw his ego away and just be real. It’s spectacular in its depth for these reasons alone.
The additional vocals by Kim Burrell supports the narrative in a powerful way and acts like the damaged spirit of Beyonce. NO ID is again the chief conductor and produces this poignant yet up-tempo beat to cleverly contrast Jay’s sombre utterings.
“Hovi’s home, all these phonies come to a halt / all this, old talk left me confused /You’d rather be old rich me or new you?” Jay sprays in the first verse of track Family Fued as he takes shots at some of new era artists who perhaps he feels hasn’t given him the respect he deserves. He goes onto explain how far he’s come be a respected entrepreneur without any kind of black role models. He takes some humorous shots at Al Sharpton, Bill Cosby & Steve Harvey along the way too. This is the most triumphant and euphoric track on the album as Beyonce chimes in with vocal outpourings expressing the elevation of black consciousness that’s the prevailing feeling throughout the whole record. NO ID crafts a Kanye esc ensemble which has a hint of gospel about whilst retaining a tangible upbeat chord that sits you at the table while this family Fued plays out.
Bam featuring Damien Marley is a real cultural connection as the two heavyweight’s combine to give social commentary on the state of the music industry. Shots are directed at top heavy Instagram rappers and over excessive jewellery flashing fake trapsters. Marley for his part adds more colour to Jays expressionist painting and brings a piece of Jamaica to the party.
Moonlight finds Jay cutting through the questionable behaviour of some rappers who have the tendency to mimic each other and sound so alike that you can’t tell who’s who. It’s a scathing observation from the perspective of someone who’s really been savvy with his business. It’s beautifully illustrated as Jay raps “Y’all niggas still signin’ deals? Still? / After all they done stole, for real? / After what they done to our Lauryn Hill? / And y’all niggas is ‘posed to be trill? / That’s real talk when you behind on you taxes and you pawned all you your chains / And they run off with your masters.” Although this is one of the more underwhelming production on the record. Jay’s insightful lyrics are enough to give it Kudos.
Marcy Me is a nostalgic narrative as Jay walks us through his heritage of his humble beginnings of Marcy housing projects in Brooklyn. His flow is aggressive and full of intensity as he breaks down his origins over a reflective poignant yet upbeat production from NO ID. The-Dream sings the chorus with heartfelt emotional deftness that captures the flashback images that Jay projects. Jays breaks it down as he spits “Marcy me / Streets is my artery / the vein of my existence / I’m the Gotham City heartbeat / I started in lobbies / now parley with Saudis / I’m Sufi to goofies, I could prolly speak Farsi / That’s poetry, reek of coca leaf in my past / came through the bushes smellin’ like roses / I need a trophy just for that.”
Jay closes the album with Legacy which finds Jay concluding on the important of Black excellence and elevation of mentality. He mentions how generational wealth plays its part in elevating the culture. This is beautifully captured in lines like “Leave a piece for your siblings to give to their children too / Tidal, the champagne, D’USSE, I’d like to see / a nice peace-fund ideas from people who like to see / A nice peace-fund ideas from people who like we.” Tidal is name checked and it’s the biggest example of the magnificence that Jay has achieved in his career.
This is grown up Jay at his most open, reflective and thought provoking. A triumphant effort from the veteran rapper.