Written by Daniel McNab
Introspective. Thought-provoking. Soulful. Educational. Personal. Boring. Just a few of the words that I’ve heard used to describe the latest release of the gargantuan, hip hop star that is Shawn Carter A.K.A Jay fucking Z. If you need a description of why Jay Z is so important Hip Hop and why he’s such an icon in rap, then I’m not quite sure why you are reading this article, however because out of pure generosity, I’ll give a few key reasons why Jay Z is one of, if not THE, most important artist in Hip Hop history.
- On the business side of hip hop there are very few rappers that have touched the heights of success and wealth that Jay Z has. Jay Z proved himself to be one of the smartest rappers through consistently making successful investments and also launching himself as a brand. Jay covered all aspects of Hip Hop from clothing (Rocawear) to how it’s consumed (Tidal) and he seems to consistently be ahead of the curve.
- No other rapper in the game has maintained such consistency in their music throughout their career. Jay Z has managed to adjust and evolve throughout his 20+ year career to remain one of the most popular rappers.
- He married Beyoncé.
Now all of that is out of the way, we can get down to the nitty gritty, and the real discussion. Can it be argued that Jay’s 2017 project ‘4:44’ is his greatest or at least one of his greatest albums. I can already hear the hip hop purists laughing and mocking such a claim, as well as probably discrediting any opinion I am likely to give but fuck it, I do believe there is an argument to be had; with an album that presents a part of Jay that has not been seen in such an open and concentrated way in his 20+ years of rapping.
Although this is Jay’s 13th solo album, 4:44 represents a first in the Brooklyn rapper’s career. It is the first time Jay Z has used a single producer for a whole album. In the early days of hip hop this was the norm, and this was honestly a great decision by the rapper. First of all, he picked on the greatest producers’ hip hop has seen in the form of No-ID, who often goes unappreciated. Secondly, the extensive list of soul samples, coming from artists such as Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder and The Clark Sisters, gave the album an almost timeless sound. However, do these two factors make it Jay’s best produced album? No. Well not in my opinion at least.
There are two albums that I believe stick out as Hova’s best produced albums; The Black Album and The Blueprint. Starting with the latter, The Blueprint gave a big break for two of the most revered producers of the current generation; Kanye West and Just Blaze. The album saw Kanye expertly using samples from the likes of the Doors and the Jacksons to create songs like Takeover and Izzo respectively. Whereas, Just Blaze displayed his diversity as a producer, through the creation of the room-shaking banger, U Don’t Know, as well as the smooth, soulful instrumental for ‘Girls, Girls, Girls. The blueprint also featured production from the very underrated producer Bink!, who has had a hand in many great hip hop songs, look him up!
The Black Album on the other hand just plays like a greatest hits album and contains some of the most exciting, and beautifully produced instrumentals that Jay has ever flowed on. The album credits read like a who’s who of producers from The Neptunes (Change Clothes, Allure) to Timbaland (Dirt off Your shoulder) to Kanye West (Lucifer, Encore) to Just Blaze (Public Service Announcement) and to legendary, hip hop innovator Rick Rubin (99 Problems). Even Eminem had an instrumental on this album, and it was clear to see that Jay was using all his power and influence to make this sonically, one of his best albums.
So, in terms of production, I cannot agree that 4:44 is the best, not by a long shot.
When I am talking about rap ability, I am not including the use of subject matter (this will be discussed later), I am simply referring the use of flows, punchlines, wordplay etc and I think it is very fair to say, that Jay was far from his best on 4:44. Now, I am very aware that this was almost done purposely, as Jay said in his Rap Radar interview that he wanted the album to feel more like a conversation, therefore he didn’t place the focus on flow. However, it is clear to see that Jay still has the talent and keep up with the young generation of rappers on songs such as ‘Marcy Me’ which sees him perfectly finding pockets of the instrumental as he has done throughout his career. Lyrically Jay is still clever with the lines too with his use of double entendre and his renowned wit that makes his music so entertaining. However, this project can’t match the way he was spitting on projects such as The Blueprint, Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, Reasonable doubt or even Vol. 3… the life and times of S. Carter, where his experimentation with flow and delivery cemented him as one of the greatest in the scene.
Lyrical content is arguably the greatest factor in hip hop music and whilst all these rappers who make unintelligible noises over trap beats sound great in the club; great lyrics will always prevail. This is the very reason why the likes of Kendrick Lamar, J Cole and Drake are the current leaders of this school of rap; people relate more to well-thought out lyrics opposed to random yelps on a track. Jay is from the so-called Golden era of hip hop, where lyrics were vital and this has meant that although Jay Z has moved with the times, he has always remained lyrical. 4:44 does not only remain lyrical, but sees Jay step away from his usual braggadocios lyrics and exchange it for more self-aware, introspective conversations. The best example of this is on the opener ‘Kill Jay Z’ which he showcases an inner battle with his self and allows the listener to see a much more vulnerable Jay than ever before. This vulnerability is further shown on the track 4:44 where he details his infidelity and how it could have led to him to losing everything. For a rapper of Jay’s calibre to give his fans such a personal album is something that should be applauded and it sets his 13th album apart from those that preceded.
So, ultimately can it be argued that 4:44 is Jay Z’s best album. I guess, maybe would be my final answer. I would honestly listen to someone who wanted to argue the case for this album but I still believe it would be a stretch to label this album his greatest. The hunger and creativeness on Reasonable Doubt and the amazingly produced Blueprint are both neck and neck for me, and I still believe 4:44 needs to be given time to sink in before it can over take 20 years’ worth of albums. At the end of the day it is all opinion based and this could be a debate that lasts for years, but what is most impressive is the fact that after all the success and acclaim Jay has received, he is still able to produce a great project.