During an interview with Studs Terkel in 1961, legendary author, essayist, thinker and all-around outstanding Black man James Baldwin broke down what, to him, was an essential facet of good art. “Art has to be a kind of confession,” he said. “I don't mean a true confession in the sense of that dreary magazine. The effort it seems to me, is: if you can examine and face your life, you can discover the terms with which you are connected to other lives, and they can discover them, too — the terms with which they are connected to other people.”
There are many astounding aspects of Jay-Z’s new album, 4:44, one of them being the beautifully erratic soul of No I.D.’s production; another being the intimate confessional tone that lingers like a tendril of cigar smoke throughout the entire project. To say it’s a new side of Jay-Z is, by now, trite. The business case for the famously guarded rapper to drop the curtain a bit to let people in made too much sense in light of the cataclysmic work that was Lemonade, Beyoncé’s bundle of meditation and exasperation that put on front street things fans of the couple kind of already knew but would never say aloud as to not put it into the universe and have it become true.
But he’s Jay-Z. The guy with a heart cold as an assassin, the guy who made multiple songs about bedding the mother of Nas’s first child and the guy who once rapped about how he left a girl in the cold with a thin sweater. Love and affection were never strong tenets of his character. So when Beyoncé let it be known that the man she pledged her life to wasn’t reciprocating the gesture, it was big news, but not surprising. “Of course Jay-Z cheated,” most people said. He’s Jay-Z. What did Beyoncé expect? The idea that Jay-Z cheated on Beyoncé both disappointed and added to the legend he’s been building since 1996: That of a man who took what he wanted, regardless of who was hurt in the process, because this country never gave him a thing. It’s an archetype that, for better or worse, helped birth an entire generation of young men.
Depending on how old you were when Shawn Corey Carter caught fire, you would be forgiven for believing that through him all things were possible. And it wasn’t just because the man who spurned religion christened himself Hova. He presented himself as an infallible, larger-than-life figure who managed to stack wins like the princess-cut diamonds that adorned his Roc-a-Fella pendant. He was the guy who came into the game $100 grand strong and promised not to leave until he notched $100 million.
“I will not lose. Ever,” he told us. Nothing less, nothing more. There didn’t seem to be much room for anything else. Despite him being preternaturally gifted at putting words together, rap seemed to be nothing more than a means to an end. We were to believe that if he could have made the same amount of money owning barbershops, he probably would have done so. “Number one d-boy, shame he could rhyme,” he once rapped. All of which leads to the most surprising part of the album: the repudiation of past actions.
Jay-Z never professed to be a role model. He never made a song like Nas's “I Can” or attempted to lead the youth in a positive direction. “Hov did that, so hopefully you wouldn’t have to go through that,” he said. But the youth followed anyway. He’s far from alone in this, but Hov’s catalog is littered with irresponsible advice. Remember when he went on record and advised listeners not to buy the BMW X5 because he deemed them to be only good enough for women to drive? Or when he tried to get everyone to stop wearing jerseys and instead wear button-ups? Or when he told everyone that Timbs were no longer cool? Good times.
His desire to win often lead to him proactively declaring people losers. And up until Blueprint 3 people were pretty alright with it. But his vociferousness in getting people to feel strongly enough about a certain thing to make a change in their lives never extended to anything most people would deem important. When he faced backlash for trying to get people to boycott the makers of Cristal champagne, he took a step back and offered a slight apology on “Kingdom Come:” “And it's much bigger issues in the world, I know, but I first had to take care of the world I know.”
A lot has changed since that comeback album. Yes, Hov’s still asking you to drink a certain liquor you can’t afford versus another one you can’t afford, but at least his motives are now laid bare. For the first time in a long time it feels like the world he inhabits and is rapping about is the one we live in and the effects of that are massive because we’ve never had anyone make it this far. We’ve never had a Jay-Z in our world. Consider who he is: a 47-year-old rapper from the projects who dropped out of high school to pursue music and sell drugs on the side. By national statistics, he shouldn’t be alive. Instead he’s inching towards a billion-dollar net worth and is producing music that is still considered to be “cool” if not all together great.
That coolness gives Hov a platform other artists couldn’t afford. There are a lot of middle-aged rappers still going in the studio but none of them have the ears of the world like Jay-Z. And this go-around it seems that the weight of the opportunity to share what he’s seen and learned with those who adore and look like him is not lost on him. Perhaps we have Harry Belafonte to thank for that? In 2012 the legendary actor and civil rights activist (and the guy who bailed Dr. King out of prison) lamented that powerful black celebrities like Jay and Beyoncé have turned their back on social responsibility. The two made up three years later.
What is known is that on 4:44 Jay-Z is very much engaged in the act of making sure that Black men — the ones who are made to believe that their best years are the ones they’re currently living because they may not be here in the future — make better decisions. At times it may come off like a dad scolding or preaching to a son, but the message hits home. “You know you owe the truth to all the youth that fell in love with Jay Z,” he says on the opening track. From there the confessions pour out. On “The Story of O.J.” we learn that he wished he never bought all those Bentley coupes and instead invested that money into appreciable assets. We learn on “Family Feud” that he doesn’t have a problem with the new breed of rappers and that other old heads should stop being so hard on them. “2Pac had a nose ring, too,” he reminds them. We learn his mother is lesbian and the guy who couldn’t see them coming down his eyes shed tears of joy when she finally found love.
We also learn that he’s come to terms with being a womanizer. And that even though he vowed to never lose, he almost lost everything he holds dear. Jay-Z had to make this song, sure, but it didn’t need to be this good or this naked. Black men are not allowed to portray much more than cold malice. If you do, you’re Drake. Jay-Z, perhaps the coldest of them all, has helped chip away at that convention. This is Jay-Z fully realized. He can be many things, to many people, at once. This plurality of Blackness that Jay-Z demonstrates on this album is perhaps the greatest gift he could have given us.
In an essay he published at 38 years old, Baldwin wrote, “The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through vast forests, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”
With 4:44, Jay-Z does just that. At a time when our Black male role models have faltered, Hov has taken the torch and asked us to follow him. Is it a blatant commercial play? Yes. Is he doing what is in the best interest of him and his family? Of course. But he’s already confessed he’s not perfect.
What more do you want?
(Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for TIDAL)