Even after its existence was announced a few weeks ago, JAY-Z’s 4:44 is an album no one saw coming. Jay’s thirteenth studio album is his most personal work to date, a disarmingly vulnerable project with zero Top 40 radio potential and plenty of stream-of-consciousness quotable moments. Ostensibly, 4:44 is a meditation on fame, family and the fragility of relationships, following a well-documented fracturing (and subsequent repairing period) in JAY-Z’s marriage to Beyoncé. For a larger-than-life personality like JAY-Z — who, at 47 years old, is an undisputed all-time hip-hop great as well as music’s most visible businessman — 4:44 is a downright shocking swerve into unknown territory. The king of chest-thumping get-money anthems, releasing an album full of apologies and admissions of imperfections? No JAY-Z obsessive thought this day would come.
“If you’re old enough, you remember a different JAY-Z, the JAY-Z who became king of New York through sheer sneering cold unemotional arrogant confidence,” Stereogum’s Tom Breihan wrote on Friday (June 30) in his early evaluation of 4:44. “He was enormous. He was larger-than-life. He was staring down at the rest of us from the Times Square heights — both figuratively and, since the Rocawear billboard had just gone up, literally. And now Jay has made himself smaller than life. He’s shown us he’s just a man, and sort of a f---up at that.”
With Jay going full-on mortal with 4:44, the response to the album has been nothing short of emphatic. Reviews are still rolling in following the album’s release on Thursday night, but the consensus is already that 4:44 is JAY-Z’s most thoughtful, eloquent and all-around best project in a long, long time. The Ringer’s Amanda Dobbins described 4:44 as “obviously a huge musical improvement” when compared to his previous albums, while the L.A. Times’ Mikael Wood wrote that 4:44 is “a collection of songs — sly but moving, both intricate and lucid — that we’ll be coming back to for years.” Breihan wrote that the Tidal exclusive is “a brave, thoughtful, rewarding piece of work. We’re richer with it out in the world — or, at least, we are if we can figure out how to hear it.”