Doc Zeus is the 8th samurai.
If Jay-Z’s career has a unifying theory, it’s an evangelical belief in entrepreneurial capitalism as a path towards self-improvement. From crack game to rap game to legitimate business empire, his music has always expressed a devotion to this spirit. At first, he bragged about the better class of material spoils that business ownership can bring. In later years, he’s sermonized about the transformational power that generational wealth can have for the black community.
It’s no shock that the man who once famously declared himself “not a businessman but a business, man” would harbor loyalty to the ideology that American capitalism can be a force for good—especially for people living in oppressed communities. The self-mythology of Jay-Z’s life story could neatly double as a classical Horatio Alger fable—the poor black kid who rose from poverty on nothing but hard work, street smarts, and uncommon perseverance. It’s easy to understand where Jay-Z’s capitalist worldview is coming from. “If it worked for me, why not others just like me?”
Even amongst his often equally capitalist peers in the hip-hop industry, Jay-Z’s success in music and business is singularly celebrated. Just last month, the Brooklyn MC became the first rapper to be inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. The ceremony was even marked by a video testimony from President Barack Obama who noted his admiration and kinship with the rapper. “Mr. Carter and I understand each other: Nobody who met us as younger men would have expected us to be where we are today,” President Obama said in the clip before praising Jay-Z’s dedication to opening the doors for people like themselves to succeed in the future. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that if Obama hadn’t come along first, Jay-Z might have harbored the political ambitions to become the nation’s first Black President. There’s an entire catalogue explaining why capitalism has been very good to Shawn Carter.
What’s equally true is the growing specter of inequality metastasizing across America right now. The assumption of power by vampire businessman Donald J. Trump and his band of psycho-capitalist plunderers are on the verge of plunging our country into autocratic kleptocracy. From the astonishingly cruel GOP plan to strip healthcare from 23 million citizens to the unapologetic graft running unchecked in the halls of the White House, the Trump Regime through their greed has placed a renewed focus on the nature of inequality.
With the already cavernous wealth gap between the richest and the rest of us showing no signs of narrowing, there’s a growing notion that capitalism—once the bedrock of American prosperity—is not only ill-equipped to deal with our country’s systematic problems but is outright responsible for the waking nightmare we seem to live in. Where does an old capitalist like Jay-Z fit in the new world order? Can a member of the ownership class remain a man of the people under the rule of Donald Trump? It’s in this political climate that Jay-Z’s new album, 4:44, is released—and it’s an album that ponders Jay’s place in the world.
Jay-Z’s place within culture has been tenuous in recent years. While remaining one of the most objectively popular and respected artists in hip-hop, Jay-Z’s once iron grip on the culture has started to slip in recent years. His previous effort, 2013’s loathsome Magna Carta, Holy Grail, received the least friendly reception from fans of his entire career, with both critics and longtime admirers noting both the noticeable decay in Jay’s once formidable rap skills and the off-putting nature of a rich man’s detachment. Perhaps rightfully so, Jay had become an artist far more interested in the investment value of fine art than the tales of the streets that raised him. After a nearly 20-year run, it seemed that hip-hop had finally moved on from the 40-something man far more interested in pimping exclusive licensing deals with cell phone conglomerates than rap music.
On immediate listen, 4:44 is about as close as a return to form that long-time Jay-Z loyalists will get. It’s easily his best in a decade. The album feels comfortably familiar, eschewing the ill-fitting ornamental production and condescending art rap that defined his more recent, disappointing projects like Magna Carta and Watch the Throne. Instead, the album’s sole producer No I.D helps Jay get his groove back through a cozy landscape of soul chops reminiscent of his magnum opus Blueprint.
While his flow isn’t nearly as effortlessly elastic as it was in his prime, Jay-Z finally sounds comfortable rapping for the first time since 2007’s American Gangster. Jay had always felt embarrassingly dad-like on say, the Kanye-style maximalism of Watch The Throne, but No I.D. provides beats that are directly in wheel house—sniping expensive-sounding samples from Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Randy Newman, and the Fugees.
4:44 strikes an immediate confessional tone seeking to reconcile the many tenuous roles he’s played in his life—the shrewd capitalist, the respected elder statesman of rap, and the flawed family man—all the while exorcising the personal demons below the surface of his formerly unflappable persona. Indeed, the most successful parts of this album find Jay-Z owning up to a lifetime of mistakes and what he would do differently if he could do it all over again.
This album was made in the immediate aftermath of Jay’s celebrated marriage with singer-slash-undisputed-ruler-of-the-universe Beyoncé Knowles nearly dissolving in public over the runtime of an album. Upon the release of Beyoncé’s scorched earth Lemonade, the public became abuzz that the veneer of idyllic family life the Carter-Knowles publicly crafted had become punctured due to Jay’s infidelities and betrayals.
For much of 4:44, the album acts as a Rashomon version of the events described in Lemonade—offering Jay’s prospective of what went wrong, why he cheated, and his personal shame that he decided to risk it all in the first place. On the album’s devastating title track, Jay-Z offers an emotional, late-night apology to his wife and many of the other women in his life for the womanizing, misogyny, and infidelities that nearly cost him his wife. It’s arresting to hear an artist whose career is built on self-mythology to be so nakedly open about taboo subjects like stillborn children. It might be his most personal track in two decades, possibly since discussing shooting his brother on “You Must Love Me” in 1997.
Jay-Z’s rocky marriage isn’t the only aspect of his life he’s seeking to find reconciliation on his new album. 4:44 serves as Jay’s passionate call for entrepreneurship as a tool for liberation within the black community, too. The album is a logical final step in a career built on belief in black capitalism as a tool for self-improvement. “Financial freedom is our only hope, Fuck livin’ rich and dying broke,” he raps on “The Story of OJ,” a low-key piano driven track. Meanwhile, on “Family Feud,” Jay-Z speaks about the need for the black communities to support black-owned businesses instead of treating the game like a competition, asking the audience, “What’s better than one billionaire? Two/’Specially if they’re from the same hue as you.”
While its obviously admirable for Jay-Z to advocate economic freedom within oppressed communities, Jay also comes across as slightly defensive about his massive wealth. It’s as if he believes by offering merely advice and opportunities for others like himself, it will be enough to absolve him as a man who has taken way more than his fair share in life. At times, he’s sounds annoyed that people believe that his wealth has made him disconnected with the streets he came from. He complains that people still pirate his music out of spite instead of signing a two-year service agreement with Sprint for the right to exclusively listen to his new album one week ahead of time.
“Y’all still drinkin’ Perrier-Jouët, huh/ But we ain’t get through to you yet, uh,” he raps on “Family Feud,” chastising his core audience for drinking a white-owned champagne brand rather than the black-owned brand that he happens to own. Like all obscenely rich men, Jay-Z seems to possess a blind spot when it comes to the deleterious effects that capitalism might have on his audience. It never occurs to him that his fans might not be able to afford to join Tidal, let alone, be able to purchase a cell phone. Some of his fans may have to steal his music if they want to hear it. Moreover, it never occurs to him that the answer to “What’s better than one billionaire” is ZERO FUCKING BILLIONAIRES because nobody should be allowed to have a billion dollars in a country that inexplicably can’t provide universal healthcare for all its citizens.
My criticism of Jay’s capitalism isn’t to suggest that his new album isn’t a solid offering. It’s easily his best album of the last ten years of his career and serves as a fitting bookend to his discography if he chooses to move on from music permanently. There are plenty of things to like about 4:44, from the soulful production to a few new memorable songs added to his canon; but let’s also not pretend that this isn’t a second-tier offering from the man. That sounds like damning with faint praise but it isn’t.
Jay-Z has made a lot of great music over his career. What this album has that none of the others do is that it provides a real confessional catharsis—choosing to consistently go deeper inside his own soul on every track — rather than following “Lucky Me” with a “Sunshine.” We might politely sit through “Family Feud” in a few years while waiting for Jay to play the hits but 4:44 will have the notable distinction of being an outlier in Jay-Z’s discography. Or maybe it’s just the first Shawn Carter album.