One of my friends says that hip-hop is very much like boxing: regardless of skill, a contender is cold product as soon as he is past his prime. And he’s right. In the treacherous hip-hop scene—where listeners tend to leave artists stranded in the dust as soon as some trendy newcomers make their debuts—a rapper is either very lucky or extremely consistent if he remains relevant to the masses a few years after his debut. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the “OG’s” (the grizzled hip-hop veterans of the 80’s, the 90’s, and the early 2000’s) are either tragically deceased or wallowing in the swamp of obsoleteness; their memories kept alive by hip-hop fans and the projects they released during their time in the limelight.
Jay-Z is one of the few exceptions. The legendary Brooklyn wordsmith went through numerous musical personas and constantly reinvented himself during his nearly three decade-long career to prove that he could adapt to the constantly changing rap game. Unfortunately, his chameleon-like versatility began to deteriorate after the early 2000’s. But, five years after dropping the flop-of-an-album Magna Carta Holy Grail, the rap mogul unveiled the beautifully made 4:44 on June 30, 2017.
Impeccably produced by Chicago hip-hop pioneer No I.D., 4:44 can easily stand alone as an instrumental album. Renowned soul singers such as Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone were sampled and embedded into the auditory fabric of the album, creating a warm and welcoming sound. The velvety sonic landscape was more than ideal for a nostalgic individual to rap over, to reminisce on their childhood and times past. Thankfully, Jay-Z enthusiastically accepts the opportunity to do so. In 4:44, Jay-Z doesn’t bother to portray himself as the braggadocious rapper and successful entrepreneur he is. In fact, he literally kills his ego in Kill Jay Z, the first track of the album, in favor of a more introspective approach so he can reveal his more vulnerable side: his life as Shawn Carter, the man who made it out of the Marcy Projects. Apologizing to his wife for his acts of infidelity, contemplating how to raise his children, warning listeners of the perils of the music industry, and attempting to promote black empowerment, Jay-Z showcased his most thoughtful and introspective lyrics since 2003’s The Black Album.
Although his self proclaimed godhood seems blasphemous, Jay-Z shows that he’s the closest thing to a divine icon that the rap genre can ever get. And as much as we also admire them, let us neglect that fellow hip-hop legend Nas has “God’s Son” tattooed across his belly and that Kanye West dubbed himself “Yeezus” in 2013. With the release of 4:44, Hova doesn’t just show that he can make a top 4 Jay-Z album when he’s thirteen albums deep in the game. He also shows us he’s the literal savior of the hip-hop genre; he spent three albums wallowing in mediocrity to cleanse the rap game of it on his fourth. 4:44.