Jay-Z is back, and he didn’t come to mess.
"4:44" arrived on Friday through Jay's own streaming service, Tidal. And it places the rapper and entrepreneur, if not on the very top of the hip-hop heap, then close to it.
"Stop walkin' 'round like y'all made 'Thriller,' " offers the man with the richest voice in rap this side of Chuck D., during "Moonlight," one of several tracks on the brilliant collection that enact verbal smack-downs on Jay's peers, old and young. In lesser hands, such a dis, particularly one that references an icon like Michael Jackson might ring hollow. But in Jay-Z's fist, such blows leave a mark, for he has released a later-career masterwork in "4:44," an album that sounds fresh, urgent, authoritative and inventive.
Dissing pretenders to the throne is not the man's main business, happily. Jay is reconnecting hip-hop to its topical roots here. "4:44" is an album that deals in a direct manner with African American culture, examining its place in the broader culture, decrying its failings, and asserting the importance of clear-eyed vision and level-headed resilience in what he suggests is a constant struggle.
The shadow of Nina Simone hangs over the finest songs on this album, above and beyond the several samples of her work that appear. Jay and producer No I.D. employ Simone as a symbol of African American dignity, a resistance to deeply ingrained racism, the very sort she spent her life (and dedicated her art to) fighting against. Even though the album does seem to directly address the allegations of infidelity that lent so much of Beyonce's "Lemonade" its power – allegations which Jay seems to confirm by apologizing for his indiscretions profusely throughout the title track – what sticks as an after-image following repeated listenings is the over-arching image of Simone, and of Black struggle.
Jay's flow is immaculate throughout, even when he drawls in a purposefully bored-sounding cadence. (This takes place most often during the dis tracks, as if Jay can hardly be bothered to summon the energy to point out the rampant ridiculousness around him.) But "4:44" is really about successful partnerships, most prominently, the one between Jay and No I.D. The producer creates some brilliantly sparse tracks and grooves here, and his use of samples is, quite frankly, as good as it gets.
In the opener "Kill Jay-Z," a brilliant rap concerning the need to transcend the ego is lent power by the spare, languid groove and the repeated appearance of a sample from the Alan Parsons Project's "Don't Let It Show." Later, Simone's voice from a recording of her singing "Four Women" provides the hook for "The Story of O.J.," the album's most visceral examination of the still-thriving racism that plagues our country and our communities. "Financial freedom our only hope," Jay raps. "(Expletive) livin' rich and dyin' broke". "Smile" employs No I.D.'s sample of Stevie Wonder's "Love's In Need of Love Today," as Jay recalls lessons taught to him by his mother, and preaches on the merits of turning the lead of inheritance into the gold of legacy. "Caught in their Eyes" employs another Simone sample, and welcomes Frank Ocean for an under-stated cameo.
Blessedly, Jay and No I.D. offer no nods to the pervasiveness of Trap music, instead focusing on supple grooves and elements of classic soul, reggae and R&B. This lends "4:44" a deep musicality and a rhythmic consistency that, say, a Future or a Drake might consider studying and learning something from.
For the time being, "4:44" is available exclusively through Tidal. Some might find this annoying, but consider that one of the album's primary themes is the need for the cycle of racism to be ended through African American entrepreneurship. Jay is simply putting his money where his mouth is.