Following the artistic leap forward represented by his wife’s album, Lemonade, it was a necessity for Sean “Jay-Z” Carter, AKA “Mr. Beyonce,” to respond with something that could reasonably be placed next to it on the shelf. This was not only because the earlier album was a nakedly confessional expose of his marriage-endangering escapades, but also because the basic premise of their relationship always was a marriage among equals. They were both already superstars when they first met. If one of them was making the transition to Real Artist, it was to be expected that the other do the same. And, with the pressure on, Jay-Z did in fact do the needful.
At one time, I was a big Jay-Z fan, back in his hard-knock days. Eventually, however, his pretensions to godhood grew too blasphemous for me. Like Kanye, Jay-Z was more appealing back when he still had something to prove. The confidence that buoyed him up when he was struggling towards the top grew sour and corrupt once he was sitting on top of the world. I also lost patience with his willful ignorance. For someone as intelligent, as naturally talented, as charismatic and as popular as Jay-Z to waste all of that on rhymes as trashy as they were flashy seemed like a colossal waste of the platform he had built.
Mortal men, however, even those with God-inspired nicknames, have feet of clay. Jay-Z sowed the wind, and reaped the whirlwind. In the wake of what seems to have been his sexual affair, his notoriously private wife responded with an album that documented her fury at being betrayed, her willingness to forgive, and her ultimatum that her husband genuinely repent and reform.
Ironically, it was here, it what was presumably the relationship’s lowest moments, that it became clear that this was no Hollywood marriage for show, not the typical hot-and-cold, here-today-gone-tomorrow pairing between stars, gazing at fame reflected in each others eyes. This was a marriage of real love and passion –with an expectation of genuine monogamy. And significantly, it was a marriage that both partners proved willing to fight to maintain. As someone noted, overnight the Carters became the highest profile black representatives of committed, monogamous marriage outside of the Obamas. And with their new albums, they were now publicly demonstrating to all of us how you fight through the hard times to come out on the other side.
It is a much chastised and humbled Jay-Z present in –at least some of –his excellent new album, 4:44. In standout tracks like the opening “Kill Jay Z,” and the eponymous confessional, Jay-Z takes ownership of a lengthy list of sins, and expresses a willingness to change. Then, in the “Story of O.J.” Jay-Z answers his wife’s fiery statement of political defiance, “Formation,” with a somber and deliberately provocative reminder of how impossible it is to transcend or escape race in America, all as set to a beautiful and haunting Nina Simone sample with a similar theme. Jay-Z does return to some of his usual bravado on tracks like “Bam” (with an underused Damian Marley) but these are easily the weakest moments on the album, a sop to the mass audience he once admitted to dumbing down his work to appeal to.
However there is another theme, beyond the infidelity, and the politics (and even the lingering pretensions to divinity on both Lemonade and 4:44), that unites the two albums: Money. Both Carters seem to have a gospel-of-prosperity style faith in the redemptive properties of an overflowing bank account. But there’s more to this obsession than raw materialism. Beyonce refers to it obliquely in the closing lines of “Formation” when she says “best revenge is your paper” (money), but Jay-Z makes it plain in track after track. The agenda here is financial empowerment for the black community. And although Jay-Z gives up all pretense of speaking to the common person when he muses on wax about his multi-million dollar investments, we can assume his real aim in those lines is to reach his peers — a circle of wealthy black entertainers and athletes that has hitherto shown little signs of using its money wisely. In particular Jay-Z relentlessly shills his own music sharing service, Tidal (famously kept afloat last year when Beyonce released Lemonade as a Tidal exclusive) in rhymes both subtle and blatant, and on nearly every track. It’s very convenient, of course, that this route to black financial empowerment just happens to run right past Jay-Z’s front door. But on the other hand, perhaps this sociopolitical agenda was behind the creation of Tidal all along.
In summary, 4:44 is not without its flaws. And if we’re honestly comparing the two albums head to head, Lemonade is the winner. But it’s a strong album, a real piece of art, and Jay-Z’s best work in a long time. It also holds some promises for a new, more grown up Jay-Z, one who’s about more than just the parties and the girls –and who just might be talented enough to take some of his wayward peers and fans with him. Go listen to it.