Yoh Phillips breaks down how 4:44 should not have its classic status attributed to Jay-Z, but instead to Shawn Corey Carter.
When Jay-Z returned from faux-retirement with the 2006 album, Kingdom Come, he was a few weeks shy from his 38th birthday. There was an early consideration to release the album under the name on his birth certificate: Shawn Carter, showcasing a complete removal from his famous moniker. Retirement was meant to be the final fade to black, Jay-Z was even gunned down at the end of the Mark Romannek-directed “99 Problems” music video―intended to be his final music video. Saying goodbye in a blaze of glory.
The symbolic death would allow him to start over, a fresh introduction. Jay wasn’t the man he was when entering the music industry as a 26-year-old street hustler with hard knock ideologies. The image ceased to be an accurate portrayal as he transitioned into cultural icon, rap mogul, and entertainment businessman. Coming back to rap meant a re-establishment, Jay was simply too removed from his extreme beginnings to reappear with music like “D’evils” and too sophisticated to sell the outlandishly, lavish lifestyle of “Big Pimpin’” as a man in a serious celebrity relationship and knocking on 40. There was very little room for an aging dog to perform old tricks.
Kingdom Come was released under JAY-Z, likely a marketing decision, and despite scoring his highest first week sales up to that point in his career, the overall reception wasn’t the same glowing ovation The Black Album received. The reviews were mixed then—it has aged a bit better overtime—but still far from one of his best. Jay wanted to be Shawn Carter but struggled finding a voice and a relatable perspective fitting his newfound position as an artist aging within hip-hop. He had moments like “Lost Ones” and “The Prelude” but there was no defending the poor execution of “Anything” and “Hollywood”.
Blueprint 3 and Magna Carta Holy Grail―albums that can be considered more Shawn Carter than Jay-Z―were also received with lukewarm receptions. The life and rhymes of Shawn Carter just weren’t as enthralling as his Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn origin character.
There was a magic missing.
It wasn’t until his thirteenth studio album, 4:44, where Jay-Z finally died and Shawn Carter finally became his most authentic voice.
Jay-Z needed to die, but more importantly the death of his ego was a watershed moment. He had spent the second-half of his career still presenting an idea of a man, only giving glimpses of his most vulnerable self between the Picasso paintings and corporate collaborations. Vulnerability was the magic Shawn Carter lacked to truly penetrate hearts.
To begin 4:44 with such a powerful illustration of transparent undressing went against the perception of his character. This was him opening the gates and allowing us entrance into his invulnerable kingdom, and the album plays as if he sat on his throne and spoke as the wise king passing down wisdom from his long life.
To wit: 4:44 is the first Jay-Z album since The Black Album to truly create discourse within the hip-hop culture. The subjects of generational wealth, black capitalism, ego death and ego necessity, blackness in a racist civilization, and financial freedom all received the same attention as the lyrics about credit, money phones, and the confession of his infidelity. Lot of the subjects aren’t new to his music, they’re recurring themes found throughout the depths of his discography, but for the first time Jay delivered these words with such frank candidness. Almost every song isn’t meant to be played and sung along, but digested, dissected and discussed. The Footnote series accompanying the music proved how the themes are meant to create conversations. Instead of recording music for just for radio relevancy or accomplishing accolades, Jay made an adult contemporary rap album intended for cultural dialogue.
4:44 won’t go down as his best album, but it is his most culturally important and has a chance to be considered a classic in that regard. If hip-hop is meant to live up to Chuck D’s proclamation that rap music is the “CNN for the Ghetto,” albums like 4:44 are important briefs for the people. There’s a need to hear the voices who are in the hoods and the voices who got it. Rap has become an artform taking families from poverty, but how do you keep from going back? It has to be more than buying out bars and drowning strippers in a rainstorm of Washington’s. Maturity in hip-hop isn’t a revolutionary concept―the history books are filled with MC’s who approached their craft for adult ears and not adolescents―but growing old in the culture comes with the role of sharing the wisdom acquired from your journey. 4:44 isn’t the first rap album that will be considered adult contemporary but it has the potential to be the most impactful.
Nas’s Life Is Good could objectively be argued as the better adult contemporary rap album, but 4:44 created a space for the music to go beyond just being analyzed musically. It’s not just another Jay-Z album but a much larger entity entirely. The music is good, some of Jay’s best post-retirement work, but the discourse is where the album is truly causing a stir with people. Jay-Z at 26 couldn’t make this album, he was still making many of the mistakes that would turn into the material for 47-year old Shawn Carter. With that said, he has spent his entire lifetime preparing the material to write 4:44.
André 3000 was aware of age when he confessed to the New York Times in 2014 how he had no desire to be a 40-year old rapper. This year, at the ripe age of 42, André admitted to Complex he couldn’t foresee rapping in his 50s. Andre cites various reasons why he doesn’t want to rap in his 50s, and a big reason is inspiration. During Jay’s Rap Radar interview, he also noted how inspiration to say something great drives him. I hope that rappers realize age does not discredit them, but not having anything to deposit into the culture does. It becomes more important to speak with the culture than attempting to grab the attention of the clubs and radio spins. The older a rapper becomes their words have the priceless worth of wisdom—if that’s what they care to share.
A culture created by the youth is destined to always have young blood coursing through its veins. Hip-hop has spent the last 44-years thriving in ways DJ Kool Herc couldn’t fathom, a constant state of physical and cultural evolution. Hip-hop spoke and continues to speak with a vibrant tongue, a language for the young more so than the old, but what of the young rappers that have lived long enough to age gracefully? 40 is an age where growing up isn’t a choice but an expectation. Some will resist, determined to make 30 the new 20, 40 the new 30, and 50 the new 40. Jay-Z tried to convince us he would be forever young but had the most significance when he stopped fighting and embraced the beauty of being one of the old men still pushing hip-hop forward.
Hairlines recede, breast descend, and until Pharrell decides to disclose the location of his fountain that halts physical aging, beauty will inevitably fade. Aging is to know being old is the hopeful destination before the reaper arrives, not the punishment. There’s beauty behind leaving a wrinkled corpse, a victory in living a long life. Hip-hop is starting to see our O.G.’s and living legends grow older and wiser. Hopefully, instead of retirement, they do as Jay did, and share all they’ve learned on this glorious road. Hip-hop is growing old, much older than they ever expected, and I think that’s something we need to celebrate. A culture we can all happily grow old in.
Yoh Phillips is an Atlanta-based writer whose work has been featured on DJBooth and Mass Appeal. Follow him @Yoh31 on Twitter.