7.5 out of 10 ••

It’s been four years since the self-proclaimed king of rap’s last outing – 2013’s largely disappointing “Magna Carta Holy Grail” – and for the most part the world hasn’t heard much from Mr. Z beyond lurid tabloid tales of infidelity and family punch-ups in public places (I’m looking at you, Solange). So it was certainly exciting to hear that a new album was forthcoming – even though so far it has only been released on the irritatingly sub-par, and not coincidentally Jay Z owned, Tidal.

In the past, several things could be guaranteed of any Jay Z album. One – it would sell lots of copies, two – college kids would be mumbling horribly misquoted lyrics to each other at pool parties and three – at least 95% of the lyrical content would be about how much better Jay’s life is than yours. However, it seems that getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar has spurred a remarkable shift in perspective for the man in question.

This shift is immediately evident in opening track ‘Kill Jay Z’. Over a dramatic soul- sample and very little fanfare, Jigga leaps straight into throwing proverbial rocks at his alter ego. Rapped from the point of view of the public he used to so flagrantly gloat to, Jay admits to shooting his cousin, cheating on his wife, stabbing a business associate and generally being a bit of a bastard. Not only that but he seems genuinely apologetic and eager to put those days behind him; signing off with the simple, yet tellingly evocative, line “Bye, Jay Z”. All pretty remarkable considering this is the same person responsible for a song titled “Money, Cash, Hoes”.

Normal service resumes on ‘The Story of OJ’ where Jay takes it back to the street corners and his apparently endless piles of money, or so it seems. Upon closer inspection however, it is actually a rather brilliant cautionary tale of how artists – and human beings in general – should be taking better care of their finances. A chopped Nina Simone sample provides a luscious backdrop and the whole song feels like an exercise in being a grown up. It even includes possibly the most un-Jay Z moment in history so far:

“You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club? Credit”

At this point you’d be forgiven for checking to see if you’d made the correct purchase.

Jay was quoted in a recent interview as saying that the new rappers of today inspired him to come back and sharpen the old lyrical toolbox and nowhere is this more evident than on ‘Smile’ where we’re reminded just how talented a rapper he is. There’s almost too much to pull apart here but the third verse in particular is a highlight:

“We deny black entrepreneurs free enterprise.
That’s why it’s a black market, that’s why it’s called a trap.
That’s why they’re called the projects ‘cause it’s exactly that.
All these people are gonna kill me,
Because the more I reveal me, the more they’re afraid of the real me. Welcome back, Carter. Smile.”


By now it starts to become apparent that we might not be listening to a Jay Z album at all. For the first time we, the baying public, are being exposed to Sean Carter, who is an actual human being and apparently a man of many sides, all them exciting. Indeed, this gospel-feeling number finishes with a poem by Gloria Carter, Sean’s mother, to seemingly solidify this fact; keeping the family spirit and good vibes running strong.

‘Caught Their Eyes’ features Frank Ocean in solid form and is an instant highlight. Boasting one of the album’s better beats, Jay goes on the attack: waxing lyrical about all who have done him wrong and even dissing, of all people, Londell McMillan. He hasn’t sounded this hungry, or indeed interesting, since 2001’s ‘The Blueprint’. The theme of blossoming from Jay Z into the butterfly that is Sean Carter continues heartily and is beginning to feel like a major step forward. It feels like a mature piece of work.

The music brings cohesion to this theme and is provided solely by Chicago pioneer No I.D. (if you don’t know this name, just ask Kanye West who gave him his career). Using, almost exclusively, chopped soul samples and subtle drum loops; sonically it has more in common with “What’s Going On?” than “Return Of The Boom Bap”. This is displayed most clearly on title track “4:44” – a very obviously openhearted apology to Beyoncé and the hip-hop equivalent of Stanley Kowalski screaming “Stella!” on the front steps. Given the tone of proceedings, this should be the centerpiece of the record but a peculiar mix (no doubt down to the fact that it was written and recorded at 4:44AM using the nearest microphone to hand) leaves the song somewhat disjointed and flat. It somehow doesn’t quite work, although it most likely scored major brownie points with the Mrs.

Lyrically, this is Jay Z at his absolute finest. Whatever occurred in his personal life has apparently shaken his tree and brought out a real artist with a real story to tell. Much like his untouchable debut ‘Reasonable Doubt’, it is plainly obvious that there is feeling behind every word. But where that album dealt with the pitfalls and stresses of dealing drugs in the slums of Brooklyn, this focuses on fatherhood (‘Legacy’), family (‘Family Feud’), and what it means to be a man in his position in this day and age. It makes for a fascinating listen.

If there is a chink in the armor of this brief, 39-minute, encounter, it would be the music itself. The old-school soul vibe serves it’s purpose, but of the ten tracks on display there are really no standout numbers, no classic Jay Z ‘moments’. No “Takeover” or “Allow me to re-introduce myself…” type highlights. With the exception of possibly ‘Marcy Me’, which sounds like a 90s New York throwback, there’s not much in the way of head- nodders at all. The beats, while not bad by any stretch, somehow don’t really feel quite up to par with the lyrical content. Obviously this was done by design but, in that respect, the album falls somewhat short in comparison to works previous.

Nevertheless, this record will be remembered for being the moment when those who wanted more depth from an artist of Jay Z’s talent finally had their patience rewarded. A solid, if slightly flawed, effort.

RELATED: Jay-Z Breaks Down the Meaning of Every Song on ‘4:44′

Early days. #thestoryofoj #444 #jayz @millchannel @titmouseinc

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Written by | John Byford

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