Here Are The Jewels From JAY-Z’s New Album That You Won’t See In The Tabloids
Nearly a week after its release, listeners are still unpacking JAY-Z’s new album 4:44. As an MC with a reputation for double and triple entendres and veiled references, lines from all of Jay’s songs have plenty to be decoded. But, on this LP he packed an enormous amount of material in just 36 minutes–with another 3 songs on the way, included with the physical version of the album reportedly coming tomorrow (July 7).
While much has already been written, posted and said about 4:44, the vast majority of commentary has focused on topics like his admitted infidelity, his conflict with Kanye West (who just today ended his relationship with Jay’s TIDAL digital music service) and subliminal shots intended for peers, young and old. Although those subjects are all lightning rods, the depth of the album goes far beyond the types of headlines typically reserved for tabloids. At 47 years young, 4:44 finds JAY-Z in the role of Hip-Hop elder statesman, and he embraces it, dropping jewels for anyone open to listening. In his own words, he says “I’m tryin’ to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99.”
The “game” Jay references is wide-ranging and, in many ways, it shows the tremendous growth of Shawn Carter in the 20+ years since his Reasonable Doubt debut. Here’s a look at some of the themes that he covers on 4:44:
How To Build Wealth
Since the very beginning, JAY-Z has talked about money, but the way he talks about it has changed immensely. On Reasonable Doubt and several albums thereafter, much of his conversation was about the drug money he had already stacked and how he planned to grow that stash in the music business. He also boasted a lot about his worldly possessions. On “Politics As Usual,” he rapped “I wear black a lot, in the Ac’, act a lot/Got matching VCR’s, a huge Magnavox/Ten inch, green like spinach. Pop wines that’s vintage/It’s a lot of big money in my sentence.”
In just 4 bars he talks about his clothes, his car, his TV, his VCR and his bottles. With all the Big Willie talk, however, he fails to mention that those are all depreciating goods–items that lose value over time instead of becoming more valuable (except the wine, which may appreciate but loses all value once it’s consumed). On 2017’s “The Story Of O.J.,” however, Hov is all about purchasing things that will make more money over time. He also expresses regret about his financial decisions when he was younger. “I bought every V12 engine. Wish I could take it back to the beginnin’/I coulda bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo for like 2 million/That same building today is worth 25 million. Guess how I’m feelin’?/ Dumbo,” he raps. In the next verse, he applies the principle to artwork–a subject about which he was maligned for discussing on his Magna Carta Holy Grail album. “Financial freedom my only hope/F*ck livin’ rich and dyin’ broke/I bought some artwork for 1 million/2 years later, that sh*t worth 2 million/Few years later, that sh*t worth 8 million/I can’t wait to give this sh*t to my children.”
Hov’s words of advice still come with more 000s attached to them than most people have, but the message applies whether speaking in dollars or cents. A penny saved is a penny earned, and a penny wisely invested leads to mo’ pennies. He drives this home on “Legacy,” where he notes that his mother laid the foundation for his thinking, even though she had little means. “Generational wealth, that’s the key/My parents ain’t have sh*t, so that shift started with me/My mom took her money, she bought me bonds/That was the sweetest thing of all time.” Now, Jay has finally stepped into the line on “Can I Live,” where he raps “No more Big Willie, my game has grown. Prefer you call me William.”
The Importance Of Controlling Your Own Destiny
Another recurring theme that Jay espouses on 4:44 is the importance of ownership. This has been a constant throughout his career but, traditionally, he has adopted more of a “lead by example” approach. When he was dropped from his record deal with Payday Records, rather than seek out a deal with another company, he and Dame Dash decided to build their own. It was a model he would employ over and over again, from Roc-A-Wear to Roc Nation to TIDAL. And, in the instances where he ceded control of assets of value to him, he often re-purchased them at a later date, as he did with the masters to Reasonable Doubt.
In 2017, however, as Kendrick Lamar commented, JAY-Z is in “master teacher” mode. He is being explicit about the need to maintain what you make, particularly with respect to Blacks and younger artists, though the lessons apply, generally. On “The Story Of O.J.,” he raps “Y’all out here still takin’ advances, huh?/Me and my ni**as takin’ real chances, uh,” in a clever nod to Chance The Rapper who has become the poster child for independent artists. Jay hits the subject even harder on “Moonlight,” where he says “Y’all ni**as still signin’ deals? Still?/After all they done stole, for real?/After what they done to our Lauryn Hill?/And y’all ni**as is ‘posed to be trill?”
The Need To Support Black Owned Businesses
There have been a number of labels attached to JAY-Z over the years, but “Conscious MC” has never been one of them. In fact, on The Black Album‘s “Moment Of Clarity,” Jay explicitly discussed his decision NOT to pursue that type of content. “I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars/They criticized me for it, yet they all yell “holla”/If skills sold/Truth be told/I’d probably be/Lyrically Talib Kweli/Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense/But I did 5 mill’ – I ain’t been rhyming like Common since.” He openly embraces his choice to put money over substance.
Thirteen years later, as he eyes a net worth of a billion dollars, Jay can rhyme however the hell he wants, and he makes good on his claim. On “Family Feud,” he joins artists like Killer Mike in stressing the importance of supporting Black-owned businesses. “Black-owned things…hundred percent,” he raps. But, akin to other billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, Jay sees nothing wrong in that support benefiting him and peers like Puff Daddy. “Y’all still drinkin’ Perrier-Jouët, huh/But we ain’t get through to you yet, uh/What’s better than one billionaire? Two (two)/’Specially if they’re from the same hue as you/Y’all stop me when I stop tellin’ the truth.” He also pledges to practice what he preaches, saying “I’ll be damned if I drink some Belvedere while Puff got CÎROC.”
Love Is Love
One of the most astonishing things about 4:44 is the way that Jay casually tosses off some of his deepest revelations. From talking about shooting his brother to stabbing Lance “Un” Rivera to disclosing his wife’s miscarriages, nothing is off the table, beginning with lead song “Kill Jay.” Jay has touched on several of those topics in the past, but on “Smile” he delves into new territory. In that song, the man who once referred to Nas as the “f*g model for Karl Kani, Esco ads” matter-of-factly reveals that his mother is gay. “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,” he raps wistfully. He does not stop at the disclosure, however. He joins artists like his collaborator, Frank Ocean, and Macklemore in advocating that love is love. “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.” While others in Hip-Hop have supported the LGBTQ community, for an MC of Jay’s era and stature to do so “it’s just different. I know it feels different.”
The game Jay imparts is not just packaged in paragraphs, either. A number of his most insightful commentaries come in the form of one or two lines:
On The Digital Divide For Blacks In Technology
At the turn of the century, there was extensive discussion about there being a “digital divide” between Blacks and Whites in the United States. At the time, the phrase referred to disparity in Internet access between the races. That gap has been all but erased through early efforts by people like Darien Dash (cousin to Damon) and technological advances that have made access more affordable (at least for now…).
Now, there is a new digital divide, and it lies in the access to capital for minorities seeking to build technology-focused businesses. On “Legacy,” Jay introduces the concept for those who care to do their research. He simply says “There was a time America wouldn’t let us ball/Those times are now back/Just now called Afro-tech.” While Jay offers no solutions to the issue on the song, he has taken steps to remedy it in real-life, by launching a venture capital fund to invest in early stage technology-based companies, and, presumably, many of them will be minority owned.
On Rap’s Generation Gap
While Jay has plenty of criticism for today’s generation, chastising people for snitching on themselves on social media and faking like they have money they don’t, he also has words for the prior generation. On “Family Feud,” he raps “And old ni**as, y’all stop actin’ brand new/Like 2Pac ain’t have a nose ring too.” It’s a quick but potent reminder of the hypocrisy that often accompanies nostalgia.
Believe In Something Greater Than You
For his entire career JAY-Z has thought extremely highly of himself. In fact, his primary nickname is Hov, literally a reference to himself as Jayhovah–i.e., a god. In the quickest of asides on “Family Feud,” however, he acknowledges the importance of believing in something greater than one’s self. “I told my wife the spiritual sh*t really work/Alhamdulillah, I run through ’em all.”
More listens are certain to reveal more game on 4:44, and, at this rate, $9.99 seems like a steal.