Jay-Z occupies a unique place in hip-hop. A fan could claim that his lyrical skills, wordplay, and double-entendre-heavy lyrics place him among the all-time greatest rappers. If you don’t like his music, it’s still reasonable to look at the mainstream attention he’s received, and the length of his discography, and appreciate that he’s one of the biggest stars the genre has ever seen. I think there was a period when he was the King of Hip-Hop.
But what is he now? He’s a drug-dealer turned gangster rapper who ran his own label as well as the legendary Def Jam records, on the way to making the best part of a billion dollars. He arrived in the public consciousness 21 years ago with an album he claimed would be his only release. 16 studio albums later, he’s still here, a 47-year-old man with a platinum album in a genre associated with youngsters.
One fascinating thing about Jay-Z is how he somehow manages to be simultaneously cool and goofy. He can be the guy rapping about guns and his vast wealth while surrounded by bouncing asses. But he’s also the guy dad-grooving at a Coldplay gig, being adorably gentle with a pensioner, or charmingly awkward on the Jonathan Ross Show. Hip-hop is vain; coolness is vital. Through his career, Jay was aware of that, and tried to be slick, while his goofy side kept leaking out, somehow without affecting his reputation.
With 4:44, Jay has finally dropped the posturing. This album is remarkably honest. He opens up about his well-publicised cheating, his mum’s sexuality, his mistakes and self-loathing. He’s touched on regrets before, he even has a song with that as a title on his first album. But 4:44 is a full-length, more earnest version of that track. This is him breaking new ground.
If I was to speculate (I’m just about to), I’d say Jay has recognised his place as Old Man Hip-Hop. Youngsters listening to Future and Lil Uzi Vert probably aren’t clicking on his albums, regardless of subject matter. But Jay realises he’s dragged his followers into and past middle-age with him. He had a lot he wanted to get off his chest, and knew there was an audience ready to hear him do so. We hate ourselves, and are happy to hear him admit to that too. He’s secure enough personally and financially to put his thoughts and heart out there to millions of listeners who’ll analyse every transcribed lyric on Genius.com. In a genre full of bullshit and posturing, Jay-Z’s given us honesty, humility, and genuine emotion, in place of bitches and hoes. 4:44 is a great album, and his best.