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.”
At this point, 4:44 is almost assuredly going to give JAY-Z his best reviews since 2007’s American Gangster, if not his 2003 opus, The Black Album. And with that in mind, is it finally going to bestow one of the most celebrated rappers of all time with an album of the year nomination at the Grammy Awards?
You read that last sentence correctly: the owner of 21 Grammys has never had a full-length nominated for the top prize (although he has been nominated for the album of the year award three times, as a contributor to albums by Lil Wayne, Kendrick Lamar and his wife, respectively). He’s also never been part of a winning record of the year or song of the year, somehow — songs like Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love,” Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and his own “Empire State of Mind” lost the major categories in which they were included, meaning that JAY-Z has never strolled up onstage to collect any of the four major prizes at the Grammys.
How to explain this? An anti-hip-hop bias at the Grammys, perhaps? Nope: contemporaries like Outkast and Eminem have scored multiple album of the year nods, while Kanye West — Jay’s one-time protégé, who receives a not-so-subtle shot on 4:44 — had his first three albums included in the category, beginning with 2004’s The College Dropout. So why the lack of love toward one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially viable MCs ever?
Technically, the Grammys have shown JAY-Z a ton of love — since his mainstream breakthrough Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life was nominated in 1999, there have only been two years in which Shawn Carter was not up for a trophy. He has multiple best rap performance wins, and multiple smash hits nominated in the top song categories. As far as album of the year goes, however, Jay has not had a true contender in the category since The Black Album 14 years ago. As celebrated as albums like The Black Album and 2001’s The Blueprint were upon their releases, the past decade has seen JAY-Z release a pair of albums (2009’s The Blueprint 3 and 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail) that included top 10 hit singles but were panned by critics, or at least viewed as lesser than his previous works. Watch the Throne, his 2011 collaborative LP with West, is largely considered a classic now, but did not garner the type of acclaim six years ago that typically accompanies an album of the year nominee (its score on critical aggregator Metacritic is 76 — generally favorable, but far from outstanding).
Now that we’ve rehashed the past, let’s look forward. With three months to go before the 2018 Grammys eligibility period ends, there are a handful of early contenders, including Kendrick Lamar, Lorde and Ed Sheeran. None of them check the Recording Academy’s boxes quite like JAY-Z does with 4:44, however. He’s a household name with major selling power that just released a bold new project that’s being hailed as a return to form. Oh, and he’s been snubbed in the album category for decades. And oh, his wife just lost album of the year, to an artist who agreed that Lemonade should have won.
There’s a lot that could change over the next few months, and a ton of upcoming projects that could box 4:44 out of the album of the year category. But the Grammys’ most famous prize is one hill JAY-Z has yet to climb, and 4:44 gives him the best shot of doing so in a very long time, possibly ever. Now he just has to pray that Adele doesn’t surprise-drop 29 anytime soon.