Jay-Z Revels in the Catharsis of Confession on ‘4:44’ – New York Times

Posted: July 2, 2017 at 2:46 pm


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It is also the first Jay-Z album in a decade that doesnt pretend to be competing in the present moment. It is the sound of a 47-year-old aesthete working at his own pace, dismantling his facade and reminding himself of all the natural poignancy that the bluster has been obscuring.

I fall short of what I say Im all about, he says on the title track, his apology to his wife, Beyonc, for the indiscretions that led her to publicly shame him. The album begins with Kill Jay Z, an extended tsk-tsk to himself. You cant heal what you never reveal, he raps. You know you owe the truth/ To all the youth that fell in love with Jay-Z.

And so the confessions, or certainly what appear to be confessions, pour out.

Yes, he cheated on Beyonc (the title track, among others); yes, hes tried therapy (Smile); yes, he stabbed the executive Lance Rivera back in 1999 (Kill Jay Z); yes, his fathers side of the family was darkened by abuse (Legacy); yes, his mother is gay, and was in the closet for decades (Smile); yes, hes fed up with Kanye Wests scattershot antics (Kill Jay Z, among others).

That is, assuming everything here is true, and not just the second installment of a multi-album musicanovela in which he and his wife portray bitter lovers bound together by fate, fame and farce.

Jay-Z has been this candid before, but never quite this naked. These arent stories told to fortify a magisterial image but rather the exhale of a long-held breath.

In some plain narrative ways, 4:44 is a companion piece to Beyoncs Lemonade. On the title track, Jay-Z is vividly self-critical: Ive seen the innocence leave your eyes/ I still mourn this death, he tells his wife.

But the two albums also share an emphasis on black self-sufficiency on Lemonade, the argument was sociopolitical; here, its largely financial. On The Story of O. J., Jay-Z raps about cross-generational wealth passing his art collection down to his children with the same fervor and lyrical gambit he once used to rap about amassing personal wealth (on U Dont Know, in 2001). The kingpin is now just a vessel for tomorrows dreams.

The whole of 4:44 was produced by No I.D., who produced much of Commons essential work, and who prepared a sample-driven, skin-and-bones, slightly greasy palette for Jay-Z to rap over. Most of the album hovers between 80-90 beats per minute, but feels slower, thanks to the way No I.D. foregoes crispness in favor of beats that slur, drag and bleed. Theres also patina on the vocals. Nothing gleams not the beats, not the words, not the feelings.

The relative sparseness acts as suction: There are barely any distractions. Its almost like an unplugged album, a kind of platonic raw course of rapper, producer, sample and beat. In places, it suggests a bare-bones counterpoint to one of Jay-Zs masterworks, The Blueprint, from 2001, which relied on the steroidal soul-informed production of Mr. West and Just Blaze to echo Jay-Z at his most conceited.

Ornamentation has long served Jay-Z well, so the lack of glamour here is striking. Part of the thrill of listening to him has been how lustrously he paints the unattainable. That underneath it all is a man full of regret is both obvious and, at times, a bit deflating. When he laments not investing in the now-redeveloped Brooklyn neighborhood Dumbo on The Story of O. J., its not clever, just a gripe. And one delivered without much flair.

The qualities that made Jay-Z one of raps true savants were his sly wit and the way he threaded himself into the production few rappers have found more creative ways to disperse their syllables, and sounded tougher and less fatigued while doing it. The Jay-Z of 4:44 isnt quite there. Hes evolved from dazzling taunts to ruminations that are sometimes snappy and sometimes lumpy. When snappy, though, theyre exhilarating, like the opening of Caught Their Eyes, which has the snarl Jay-Z arrived with fully formed on his 1996 debut album, Reasonable Doubt: I survived reading guys like you/ Im surprised yall think yall can disguise yall truths.

At this stage of his career, though, keeping up with the Migos would be a fools task. Hes a veteran, and it shows: On three songs, hes baffled about how the younger generation uses Instagram as a tool of exaggerated street theater. And while the Jay-Z of 10 years ago would have been improvising his way through Young Thug and Playboi Carti anti-flows both as an exercise in hubris and also competitive vim, theres none of that here.

Rather, he makes a strong case for artistically aging by drilling down to core principles. As albums of late-career reckoning go, 4:44 isnt quite Gaye or Sinatra or Cash, but its on the path. Uncomfortable truths unearthed, demons shouted down, process refined even when everything melts away, you can still be ice-cold.

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Jay-Z Revels in the Catharsis of Confession on '4:44' - New York Times

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July 2nd, 2017 at 2:46 pm

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