I apologize for taking so long to write this. Doctoral studies have been kicking my butt. I’m also still a husband, father, and principal of a school, so things can get busy for me. Anyway, it’s taken me a little bit to absorb Jay Z’s new album 4:44. I’m actually still absorbing it, but I think I have enough in me to begin writing.
At first listen the sound through me for a loop. It was different and unusual. It didn’t have that boom bap. You know, that head nod bounce that serves as the root of Hip Hop sound – especially for those of us in our 40’s. So, I put the album down for a few days and continued with my studies. I often do this with books and articles as well. When the content is too complex or obscure, put it down, let the brain adapt, and come back to it later. The brain and the heart often needs time to adjust.
On second listen, I started at the song Marcy Me, followed by Legacy, then scrolled up and listened to Smile. As I listen to Smile for the second time, I sent the following text to my two best friends: “Listening to this Jay album again, incredible!”
Jay’s response to Beyonce’s Lemonade and his profuse apology to her stole the headlines when the album first dropped. I also read in passing everything from the album was “wack,” to the album is anti-semetic, to “this is an album for black men.” As you can probably tell by the range of topics, this album has depth. I love depth, because depth leads to conversation. If I were to make a list of what humanity needs at present, more than ever, depth and conversation would definitely occupy my list.
This album represents an evolved Jay Z; representative of evolved Hip Hop. He doesn’t just apologize to Beyonce, he shares his deepest fears of what life without her and his children would be like. He also apologizes to black women in general for past transgressions, verbalizing what black men have struggled to articulate for quite some time:
I apologize for all the stillborns, because I wasn’t present, your body couldn’t accept it. I apologize to all the women who I toyed with your emotions because I was emotionless.
Throughout the album, Jay models what he raps about on the intro track, Kill Jay Z. Though hardened by an absent father, he now has a daughter so he has to be “softer.” As a married man, I would argue that being married requires this mollifying as well. The Black men we were raised to be, often within dysfunctional families and society, is not who we need continue to be in order to thrive through adulthood.
Jay pours his soul into this album. The soul of a husband, father, son, flawed human being and Black man in America. Hip Hop needed this, the black community needed this, America needed this. Check out this powerful ancestral connection Jay makes on Smile:
Mama had four kids, but she’s a lesbian
Had to pretend so long that she’s a 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
I just wanna see you smile through all the hate
Marie Antoinette, baby, let ’em eat cake
How many of us live a lie? How many medicate to survive? Don’t lose site of the stigma that Hip Hop has acquired over the years: homophobic, misogynistic, materialistic, gangster. Jay is evolving the culture into a psychological, intellectual, and literary space. It has always been there, but now hopefully the masses will begin to recognize. Like life, Hip Hop cannot be boxed in. It is brilliant and beyond. Jay exemplifies that.
As usual, Jay Z is super lyrical. Check the lyrical gymnastics on Marcy Me:
Gave birth to my verbal imagination
Assume a virtue if you have not
Or better yet here’s a verse from Hamlet
“Lord we know who we are, yet we know not what we may be”
So maybe I’m the one or maybe I’m crazy
In five bars, Jay encourages us to live by virtue, quotes Shakespeare, and shares the inner conflict of self-esteem and psychosis. This is black magic and black brilliance at its finest. I’m emphasizing black because of the stigma and the ridicule, and how we’re reminded annually that there’s an alleged achievement gap in schools between white and black. Yet Jay-Z is a high school dropout, and one of the most brilliant artist and businessmen of our time. This is why I profess the need for an education revolution. What if our schools nurtured the innate brilliance of all children, instead of trying to anesthetize them into cogs for capitalism.
This album is the perfect storm of literary form, vulnerability, and social consciousness in the context of American capitalism. Jay wants us to build wealth, and a legacy, by any means necessary. Yes, he still makes reference to crack cocaine, and lavish lifestyles, but on this album, flossing is not the main course; it is a side dish used as a jumping off point to deeper content: his mother, his wife, his daughter, the black community, himself, and the quest toward self and collective actualization.
Through Jay-Z’s truth, we see an exhibit of the infinite power of catharsis. This is the beauty of art and why we love artists. They model what we all need to strive for. Love of self, conveyer of truth, strength in vulnerability, expression and creativity. I highly recommend the album. And I highly recommend you listen very carefully.