Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Review of Jay-Z's 4:44 album

His most experimental yet. His most political yet. His most racially charged. The whole album plays gently. Like a Hoopty car in a slow cruise in the Marcy projects hood, scared of an ambush by police cars nearby. Jay-Z is 47 now - so 4:44 is a mature jazz rap opus of family, unlike his past rap of opulence and crack. Every song sort of has the mood of “Song cry” - weepy background vocals, instruments almost scared of playing, light piano keys, horns that behave, bass that bats gently like Thundercat’s, brass that is scared of being brash. No danceable H to the Izzos. No groovy party bangin Big Pimpins. No fast paced Timbaland inspired dirt off your shoulders. Just a lush Jay-Z with a jazzy sound, coupled with some soul, some blues. Fifty cent described it as music that you can listen to on a golf course. I like the album’s experimentation, though it didn’t grip me like “Blueprint” did. The Cameroonian hip hop fans who love Jay-Z are not crazy about it. It is right up there among his best albums but not his best album.

Every single song is infused with background vocals and solid music samples, ranging from Hannah Williams to Blue Irvy, Gloria Carter, Frank Ocean and the Fugees; constant singing, some wailing, some gurgling, some auto-tuning. Jay-Z then steers his slow cruise with rhymes which are as subtle as his ride. And it’s tight! He’s a man of mistakes in them. He’s a reflective parent in them. He’s an unfaithful husband in them. An apologetic man to Beyoncé in them. But in some songs, he quickly morphs into a gun wielding smooth criminal driver and takes diss shots at everybody around him, from 50 cent to Kanye West, to OJ Simpson and even the Oscars, reminiscent of that old Jay-Z that walloped Mobb Deep.

The first track is a hookless one verse song aptly titled, “Kill Jay-Z”. It’s a very alarming song, especially for an album intro. A touching line goes, “We know the pain is real but you can’t heal what you’ve never revealed.” And Jay-Z goes on to reveal very shocking facts about his life, like shooting his brother, like selling drugs to close people he loves, like dropping out of school. So how can fans know if they can trust this Jay-Z? Fuck Jay-Z. “Kill Jay-Z” –literally! Is it a form of catharsis? He sets the tone of the album as a fallible Jay-Z that can falter. But even though he had no father, he’s got a daughter, so he has to get softer –not on Kanye West though, he is the first person he disses.

In “The story of OJ” Jay uses OJ’s trademark, “I’m not black, I’m OJ” statement to address the realities and truths of being black in America. Being a marginalised Anglophone in Cameroon, it’s a song which resonates with me on many levels, especially the denial, which an Anglophone minister embodied with his unbelievable announcement on state TV, “There is no Anglophone problem in Cameroon!” Jay-Z is also a wise entrepreneur in the song, “You wanna know what’s more important than throwin money in a strip club? Credit. You ever wondered why Jewish people own all the property in America? That’s how they did it.”

The next two songs pave the way for the track which hands the album its title, 4:44, which he woke up at 4:44 in the morning to write. The song plays for exactly 4 minutes and 44 seconds. Jay-Z starts his rhymes with “I apologize…” and he apologizes many times to Beyoncé throughout the first two verses, for cheating on her. He even asks for forgiveness from his children, Blue Irvy and the twins. Jay-Z samples a Hannah Williams song which is about infidelity itself. The music video for the song is such an emotionally complex one. It is not a traditional hip hop music video even. It is some hyper art visual with snippets of music that snaps constantly to show skits. Nigerian writer, Akwaeke Emezi makes a cameo appearance in the video. It’s the kind of visual work that aligns with her visual art.

“Family Feud” is slightly inspired by church background vocals. The rapper further explores family tension. The most outstanding line to me remains, “Nobody wins when the family feuds.” He also distances himself from Becky with the good hair, “Let me alone Becky, a man that don’t take care of his family can’t be rich. I watched Godfather I miss that whole shit. My consciousness was Michael’s common sense. I missed the karma that came as a consequence.” I think this song and 4:44 are good examples to Cameroonian married men with dysfunctional marriages and with big egos who cheat. Apologize. Make the effort to fix up your family feuds.

“Bam” is the only song with a strong Reggae feel and middle tempo blaring horns because, well, there’s Damian Marley in there, who sings the raspy hook and kills it. It’s the only song getting airplay in my country the most. After a brilliant joint album with Nas, “Distant Relatives”, Damian is the go to guy for brilliant reggae-rap joint ventures. He is his father’s genuine musical successor. He towers over all his other Marley Reggae brothers.

Jay-Z proceeds to diss that iconic 2016 Oscar moment in the next song. The Oscar flop of all times, when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway mistakenly announced the white cast movie, “La La Land” as winner of the Best Picture award, when the black cast movie, “Moonlight” actually won that prestigious Academy. Jay coincidentally dubs the song, “Moonlight” to reflect that. It’s my favourite on the album. He tackles racism in America head on, “He’s talking la la land, even when we win we gon lose”. Then he tackles beefs head on, “Stop walkin round like you made Thriller uh…please don’t talk about guns, that you aint never gon use…why just so fucking confused? Y’all’s talking la la land.” The “Fu-Gee-la” Lauryn Hill vocal sample playing in the background which aligns with his la la land chant is a smart choice.

“Marcy me” has got the best piano keys composition on the album. In it, Jay-Z time travels back to the dangerous Marcy Projects buildings in New York where he grew up, cooking coke, “where the boys died by their thousands.” He charts his way up to Manhattan success, aligning it with images of other icons’ emergence, successes and failures. Michael Jordan losing to Isaiah Thomas early in his career and all. He gives shout outs to his heroes. Blue Irvy opens “Legacy”, the last song on the album which has very gentle horns. Jay-Z muses deeply on his extended family that raised him, not his wife and kids. He half ponders on being a have from a family of have-nots. He imagines who will do what with his wealth and legacy when he’ll finally pass, as he finally parks the slow riding 4:44 car.

Nkiacha Atemnkeng is a Cameroonian writer and music critic.