It’s been an enormous week in the world of Jay-Z news and rumours. Wife Beyoncé giving birth to twins, reportedly named Shawn Jr. and Bea, obviously being the biggest news. There was also an adorable flurry of activity on Hov’s Twitter account, a succession of “I promise I’m not drunk” tweets shouting out seemingly every artist past and present in the rap game as well as finishing with a tribute to ‘the greatest rapper of all time’ Barack Obama, who also just inducted Hov into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (the first rapper in history to do so).
Nailing the ‘old person trying to use the Internet’ vibe was a humanising and funny addition to the recent scuttle of Jay-Z (hyphen newly and rightfully restored) news, which also included the announcement that all twelve albums in his discography have gone platinum. A truly remarkable feat.
Even here in Australia, music media lost it this week when Bluesfest hinted about a potential Jigga headline set for their 2018 event. “He is a beauty and it will be an absolute pleasure to bring him to Bluesfest. That only leaves around 99 artists to go”, teased Peter Noble.
And there’s the small matter of a new Jay-Z album coming on top of all that.
Its entire rollout process has been typically cryptic to say the least. Titled 4:44, it started with mysterious billboards popping up across the globe, then a trailer for a ‘Tidal movie’ (of course you already knew it was going to be Tidal exclusive) starring Lupita Nyong’o, Mahershala Ali and Danny Glover airing during the NBA finals.
Going the same route as other 21st century God-tier artists like Frank Ocean and wife Beyoncé, the new record is going to be a visual one.
4:44 will mark Jay-Z’s thirteenth studio album and his first since 2013’s absolutely tepid Magna Carta Holy Grail, an album made free for digital download for Samsung customers via the Jay-Z Magna Carta app, which is an utterly appalling sentence to attach to a record by one of the greatest rappers in history.
This was peak 2013 though, this version of Jay-Z a galaxy away from the gritty hustle of Reasonable Doubt, the coronation of The Blueprint and the euphoric celebration from atop the world with partner-in-crime Kanye West on Watch The Throne.
Magna Carta Holy Grail was billionaire businessman (no longer feeling like a business, man) Jay-Z, and it was palpable that he’d lost a step or two in the same way Kobe Bryant had. The pair mirrored each other somewhat, both hotheaded, swaggering upstarts in the 90s before conquering the game at the turn of the century, in 2013 finding themselves at the twilight of their respective careers.
Magna Carta felt like what might have been a very anti-climactic ‘it’ for Jay-Z’s musical career. It barely played like a cohesive record, just a cheap and soullessly inorganic way to broaden the subscribership of Hov’s venture into music streaming, Tidal, and it’s easy to see why 4:44 might feel kind of the same. Its promotion has definitely been really similar, mysterious advertisements and this time with a partnership between Tidal and Sprint to boot because gross.
Look past the hamfisted marketing gimmicks though.
There’s been wild speculation around the title, Jay-Z’s known connection to the number 4 as well as a subtle nod to 44th President of the United States Barack Obama quickly being pointed out. It could be an Obama tribute album, “for 44” some have concluded. Given that Tweet from earlier in the week and Jay-Z and Beyonce’s close personal connection to the former President, it seems like almost a given that the album will at least touch on him at some point.
Then look at the actors starring in this Tidal movie. You’ve got two Oscar winners, Ali and Nyong’o (for Moonlight and 12 Years A Slave respectively), and the other is Danny fucking Glover. Three hugely important black actors starring on a visual album that might be centred around the first black president and soundtracked by one of the most successful black men of all time?
Don’t talk to me or my son again if you think this isn’t going to be must-see and hear.
The first snippet Adnis sheds just a little bit of light, a downtrodden sounding Hov almost mumbling “letter to my dad that I never wrote, speeches I prepared that I never spoke” while Ali goes to work on a boxing bag being held by Glover. We’ve not had a Jay-Z album since Obama left the Oval Office and was replaced by his polar opposite, Donald Trump. Ditto since the Black Lives Matter movement rightfully forced itself to the front of the global social consciousness. There will be plenty for Jay-Z to say on this album, and smart money says he won’t hold back.
On the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, not 15 minutes from where Shawn Carter spent his childhood in the Marcy Projects, is the house that he helped build: the Barclays Center. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen Jay-Z live once in my lifetime. It was his third concert in a series of eight to celebrate the grand opening of the arena in 2012,i and the relocation of its new occupants, the Nets, from New Jersey to Brooklyn. An NBA team Jay-Z had purchased a minority stake in and helped move to his hometown, he swaggered around the stage that night in a pair of custom made number 4 Nets jerseys, with “Brooklyn” splashed across the front of them and behind enough gold chains to finance an island nation. He looked like the undisputed King of New York City. The city was under new management.
The message was clear that night: here was a man who had clawed his way from being just another disenfranchised and disillusioned black kid in America to a billionaire and one of the most successful people in the world. This night was Jay-Z planting his flag at the top of Everest and the peak of both his artistic and professional careers. It was a shame to see him sell off his stake in the Nets just two years later and his entrepreneurial pursuits to clash so ungraciously with his music. The fire and determination that got him to the top seemed like they’d disappeared, replaced by a slick corporate sheen that felt completely wrong.
It’s why people might be right in suggesting it could be time to hang up the mic and focus on other ventures. Maybe Jay-Z is a better businessman than a rapper in 2017 and maybe 4:44 is the last we hear of Jay-Z the artist. If it is, expect it to be a swan song befitting of arguably the most prolific rapper to ever live and far and away the most successful. There’s no way he’d bow out on anything less… we all hope.
Nobody really remembers Kobe Bryant’s frankly godawful, injury-plagued final few seasons where he was a broken-down shell of his former self. What they do remember is him taking over one last time and lighting up the Staples Center for 60 points in his retirement game, going out on top. If 4:44 is Jay-Z’s 60 point game, we might be about to be hit with one of the best releases of the year.
Does the world need a new Jay-Z album? No, and it hasn’t for some time. But it seems like he’s got something much more important to say here than simply ‘subscribe to Tidal’, despite surface impressions. And if that’s the case, we should all be listening.
4:44 is out June 30th via Tidal.