JAY-Z's '4:44' Voice and Inspiration: Meet Hannah Williams

Hannah Williams
Billboard Brazil

Hannah Williams

Meet Hannah Williams, the voice and inspiration for the title track on JAY-Z's long-awaited new album, 4:44.

Produced by the legendary No ID, "4:44" uses a long sample from "Late Nights & Heartbreak" by Williams and her band, The Affirmations

In one of the most-discussed tracks on the release, JAY-Z apologizes to his wife, Beyonce, for his infidelity, brought to light by her most recent album, Lemonade.

By the sound and vibe of the sample, you could easily think it came from an obscure vinyl from the '70s. But Williams is a young singer from England, who runs the music department at the University of Winchester.

Billboard Brazil talked to Hannah Williams, who's been in the industry for a couple years, but is only now getting her chance of being recognized for her work worldwide.

I assume your biggest influences come from American music. What did you listen to to develop your style?

Yes, of course. Soul music is a global phenomenon but was definitely developed most greatly in the U.S. I have a list of influences as long as my arm: Etta James, Nina Simone, Charles Bradley, Sharon Jones, Aretha Franklin, Minnie Riperton, Otis Redding, Bill Withers, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Dionne Warwick… the list goes on.

All of these voices have inspired me greatly and undoubtedly "shaped" my ear for music, but I never wanted to sound like anyone else… I don't think any artist does, really. I just want to sound like me and hope that listeners enjoy my sound.

Do you like anything from Brazilian music?

I have to confess that I am not enormously experienced in Brazilian music, but I do know that I love samba. Nothing makes me want to dance more than those fast, complex polyrhythms.

Most of the time, when a big rapper wants to sample a song, the whole thing is handled by agents, managers, A&Rs, that kind of stuff. Your case was different. You had one of the greatest rappers calling you personally. Tell me about that experience. Did you think it was a prank?

Yes, 100 percent. You have hit the nail on the head. I was convinced when my drummer and manager Jai called me to tell me "to expect a phone call from JAY-Z" that it was some elaborate wind-up. But… apparently not. Mr. Z called me 48 hours later to ask if he could have the sessions from our studio recording and to re-record some alternate permutations of the chorus lyrics in case he wanted to diversify from the implied meaning in the original.

I was on a coach on the way home from the Cathedral's Group choir festival with about 50 students from the music department I run at the University of Winchester. We were nearly home when I thought to check my phone and let my husband know to come and pick me up. To my absolute shock and disbelief, I had missed calls from a U.S. number and a text from JAY-Z. "Hello this is Jay. Please let me know when you are available for a quick chat. Thank you." What? Really?

So I went straight home and called him from my tiny rented house in Winchester and… that was it. He didn't use the additional versions in the end which I am really pleased about as it shows that the original track totally speaks for itself.

Sometimes musicians can be reluctant about having a song sampled. Were you insecure at any point?

Of course not! He's not called Hov for no reason! He's the biggest name in hip-hop and an A celebrity! What an amazing opportunity. I guess my only hope was that the sample was recognizably us and… by gosh it is! No ID has looped it in a very imaginative but respectful way.

"4:44" not only is the best song in the album, but also one of the greatest songs by JAY-Z in his whole career. It's his most personal song ever. No ID said that he did the track that way so he could box Jay into openly talking about those feelings. And of course, you play a big part of this, providing the voice that inspired him. How does it feel to be part of something like that?

Incredible. I had literally no idea about the story behind the song or the story behind being his vehicle to write the song. I didn't even know it was the title track. We all knew about the "story" at the same time the rest of the world found out on June 30. That was quite a day for us all! Nobody could have prepared me for that.

Do you usually listen to rap? Even thought about recording with MCs? If so, who do you want to team up with?

Yes, I do enjoy rap and hip-hop. It's not top of my listening list but it's definitely played a part in my playlist for a long time. Plus… you would literally have to be living under a rock in the middle of the desert to have missed JAY-Z's stuff, right? For sure, I would be happy to work with other artists. I quite frequently write and/or record feature vocals for a variety of other artists -- soul, house, electro swing, pop, whatever. I am not soul purist, and I enjoy many forms of classical and popular music. As long as it's good then I'm game!

Do you feel like asking Hov for a verse on a song?

How do you suggest I ask that? I mean, he has pretty much given me that already, right? The first 52 seconds of "4:44" is my voice and my band.

Are you planning on releasing new music soon?

Yes, absolutely. When we found out about the possibility of being featured, we grabbed as many opportunities as we possibly could to get together, write, try out new material, re-imagine old material from the cutting room floor from the last album and get our next album ready to record. We are hungry to deliver new material to the world as soon as we can. So, watch this space.