Roc Boys Will Be Boys: On Adulthood and JAY-Z’s ‘4:44’

Israel Daramola takes a look at '4:44' and how it shows (and doesn't show) JAY-Z's personal growth.
By    July 11, 2017

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Israel Daramola doesn’t love you like they love you.

I.

My father has been terrified the entire time I’ve known him. He was terrified about having children, he was terrified about having three daughters, he was terrified when he lost his job, he’s terrified in the face of his dissolving marriage and he’s terrified for his first born son. This terror comes out in a lot of unhealthy ways: anger, mainly, but also suspicion, disgust, gaslighting, and victimization. Regardless of what we all thought when we were kids, being an adult is scary—almost every single day. You can’t really prepare yourself for it, you can just learn certain lessons quicker than others. My dad was terrified because he had to take care of a wife and family; he had to be the main provider, protector and nurturer to four black children and a black wife in America and it was hard. I don’t think he knew what to do or what it means to “know what to do”; he still doesn’t.

II.

On Friday June 30th, JAY-Z released his 13th studio album, 4:44, a No-I.D. produced referendum on owning up to your bullshit and embracing both adulthood and what it means to be a man. It’s an album full of apologies and self-blaming for his infidelities and the callousness with which he has treated his marriage, honest exploration about the things he’s done in his past, and plenty of trademark Tony Robbins-esque prosperity gospel that he’s always good for on his albums. 4:44 is good: a solemn, confessional meditation on life and JAY’s status as kingpin and spokesman for Hip-Hop that is soulful and smooth to the ears; an album perfect for listening to late night when you’re alone and need something peaceful to listen to.

The music doesn’t sound like a masterpiece but it reads like one. It’s full of things worth thinking about and considering even when the album is finished. The album has already been celebrated as “Grown Adult Rap”; JAY-Z gracefully accepting responsibility for the things he’s done wrong, trying to set an example for rap and younger men and embracing adulthood. Much of that is a bit overblown—JAY-Z essentially made a Common album, where he espoused plenty of black capitalism as liberation fantasy and tried to play wise elder of hip-hop.

The most “adult” moments on the album are when he vouches for young rappers being able to have the luxury of youth like on “Family Feud” ( “And old niggas, y’all stop actin’ brand new/ Like 2Pac ain’t have a nose ring too, huh”), and when he confesses to his coldness and despicable behavior in his marriage to Beyonce on the title track (“Took me too long for this song, I don’t deserve you/ I harass you out in Paris, “Please come back to Rome,” you make it home”). The latter is certainly interesting and vulnerable and intense but it’s hard to admire JAY-Z for his honesty when his truth is that he has been a terrible husband; but such is the luxury of men that honesty is deserving of a merit badge.

III.

I have three sisters and many women in my life that I’m close to. If you were to ask any woman when the first time grown men started to take an interest in them, most will tell you an age between 12-14—when puberty has or is about to hit and the body is blossoming. It’s at this moment that a girl is no longer allowed to think or behave like a child, she must make her first adult decisions in order to protect herself from predators, lest she be blamed for provoking the actions of grown men. In “4:44”, JAY-Z raps that at 21 Beyonce “matured faster than me, I wasn’t ready,” which is hilarious to think a man over ten years her senior could say that and have people laud him for it. Women have to grow up immediately, while men are celebrated when they grow up eventually.

IV.

Many of the major critiques of 4:44 have centered around JAY-Z’s dream of a future led by black capitalism, that the problem with capitalism is that the subjugated aren’t at the top. “Financial freedom my only hope/ Fuck livin’ rich and dyin’ broke, JAY raps on “The Story of OJ.” Capitalism, of course, profits off of being propped up by a subjugated class; if it’s not the black person it will be someone else. It’s not to say JAY’s words aren’t inspirational or idyllic, but there is no liberation with capitalism and there is no reason to pretend otherwise.

JAY-Z is more similar to a Rockefeller or a Rothschild than he is to you or I—that’s evident when he raps about how he should’ve been the one to capitalize on DUMBO. He is about business, profit and wealth building, even if it’s through destruction. The core message is not new—JAY is far from the first rapper to preach on financial literacy and it is important for everyone of every class to know how money and their government works in order to better survive. JAY-Z is our most appetizing success story: a wealthy black man running rap; a hip-hop one percenter. It’s ideal to want to reach those heights as a black man or woman but this is not the same as freedom.

V.

There’s a lot of disagreement about rap made by older people. Rap was started by black kids and many continue to look at it as a genre for the young. This is mainly because hip-hop is fixated on what’s new, what’s now, and what’s relevant, however every genre needs a place for every generation of fans. Adult rap isn’t rare, it’s just under-covered: many rappers like Nas and Phonte have made adult rap albums and many others like The Lox, A Tribe Called Quest, and Big Boi have made the kind of rap that would appeal to the now older audience that loved them when they first emerged. If anything makes 4:44 unique is that it is an album explicitly about adulthood and being a rap elder statesman. JAY-Z wants to give sage wisdom to both young and older rappers; it’s admirable anytime a rapper of JAY’s status and longevity in the game wants to kick knowledge even when it might feel exasperating at times. When he raps about “A nice peace-fund ideas from people who look like we/ We gon’ start a society within a society/ That’s major, just like the Negro League, it’s the same type of game that the elders have always expounded on us. It may be repetitive and even misguided at times but it’s definitely not bad and it’s a better use of time than reaching for any fad to hold onto for cultural relevance.

VI.

In the midst of writing this, 50 cent went on Instagram and called 4:44 “golf course music.” Many JAY-Z fans might take exception to this but I don’t think JAY-Z would mind his music finding a place in golf country clubs. If anything, that’s what he’s built his career to.

VII.

I’ll give JAY this: people get excited to decode his music, even me. Plenty of rich, thoughtful, and insightful essays have been written about it so far and I’m sure there will be more to come. All the effort to parse the songs and music videos and sample choices are rarely spent on artists of a lesser status. In a lot of ways, that’s really a shame but yet here I am doing the same. One of my favorite threads on Twitter was made by fellow POW contributor Dan from the Internet titled, “JAY-Z just wants to go home,” essentially a string of photos showcasing JAY’s natural discomfort in public outings. It’s great because it’s extremely relatable and it’s rare to relate to JAY-Z.

Getting older comes for us all and regardless of whether you recognize it early or late in life; eventually you will have no choice but to recognize it. 4:44 is most exciting as a portrait of a man in a later stage of his life; ruled by his duty as a father and husband and the legacy he wants to leave behind. It’s certainly more interesting that way than it is musically. It’s also more of a retirement swan song than The Black Album was but it’s hard to tell if JAY-Z would ever stop making music (especially not now that he can game the numbers to guarantee a platinum plaque). Time will tell on that front, but the only thing I’m sure of is that JAY-Z just wants to go home.