What you about to witness is my thoughts
Just my thoughts, man — right or wrong
Just what I was feeling at the time
The hardest thing to achieve as a world-famous, millionaire-going-on-billionaire rapper is a sense of spontaneity. JAY-Z has been a businessman and/or business, maaaan for such a long time now that nearly every move he’s made has long felt inherently workshopped, focus-grouped and plotted to the finest detail — when the stakes are so high, you can’t leave anything to chance. In 2001, a still-ascendant Jigga could advertise his album as an off-the-cuff collection of disparate trains of thought and the idea was at least mildly plausible; in 2017, such rawness seems like it should be impossible from Shawn Carter.
The few glimpses that we have gotten in the past few years of a relatively unfiltered JAY-Z, though, have come in the form of sporadic Twitter splurges he’s indulged in from his @S_C_ account — like the #FactsOnly Q&A spree he went on after the release of Magna Carta Holy Crail in 2013, and just a couple weeks ago, the “people that have inspired me” series of shoutouts he offered before his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. They’re disorganized, they have tons of typos, they show the level of Twitter mastery of somebody who only uses social media a handful of times a year — but they more or less feel real, which for someone of JAY-Z’s stature is an increasingly rare and refreshing thing, especially for longtime fans who’ve felt increasingly disconnected from the MC along his journey from Marcy to Bel-Air.
At midnight on Thursday (June 29), JAY-Z released his 13th solo LP, 4:44, as a TIDAL and Sprint exclusive, and the most immediately striking thing about the album upon first listen was its conversational directness. JAY makes up for lost verses over the four years since his last LP by addressing everything from his tarnished relationship with Kanye to his infamous elevator video with Solange to his Lemonade-inspiring unfaithfulness to Beyonce — all within the first track, “Kill Jay Z.” Making Jigga’s bars hit even harder is the fact that there are barely any choruses, big hooks or even major guest appearances on the set: The three credited guests on the set are Frank Ocean, Damian Marley and Jay Z’s own mother Gloria Carter, with full-album producer No I.D. by far the biggest other voice on the set, interjecting it with samples from Stevie Wonder, Lauryn Hill and Nina Simone whenever Shawn seems to need a breather.
It’d be easy to view the album as defiantly uncommercial, if not downright experimental in its practically free-associative nature. But while the set will almost certainly be a non-starter at radio — ask JAY what the first single from the set is, and watch him cackle in response — the rapper has wisely learned, probably from no one more than his own wife, that the FM dial has been replaced by the Internet as the most important space for pop music to own. And that’s the way that 4:44 is designed to be consumed, debated and evaluated — as a shared social media experience, with JAY-Z firing off tweets-as-bars about O.J. Simpson, Steve Harvey, and Prince and you can practically see the likes and RTs being racked up by the thousands as you’re listening.
The new album feels like one of those just-my-thoughts Twitter deluges, S Dot caught in a (relatively) unguarded moment, sharing his feelings on topics as close to home as his mother’s closeted homosexuality, the possibility of his daughter one day discovering his infidelity, and the legacy both real and intangible that he’ll leave behind when he’s dead.
And like those sprees, it’s occasionally messy — JAY’s notes about “why Jewish people own all the property in America” are pretty ill-advised, as is his “Marie Antoinette, baby, let ’em eat cake” message to his mother at the end of his otherwise affecting “Smile” verse. But the occasional lack of editing-for-content has the ultimate effect of making the set more endearing, since they seem like moments that the MC let slip because he didn’t even give himself the chance to overthink things. It’s like catching a pop star in a live vocal crack and feeling grateful to know that at least the performance isn’t lip-synced.
4:44‘s framework also made its manner of debut particularly powerful. An incidental function of the age of streaming and Global Release Fridays is that a wide number of highly anticipated releases end up being listened to for the first time in informal midnight listening parties, in which the Internet is able to react to an album in real time, the same way users would provide running commentary on an awards show or sporting event. Many of those albums aren’t really optimized for such man I should’ve gone to bed hours ago listening, but JAY-Z’s latest certainly is, allowing fans to hear it for the first time in the same mindstate that Jigga presumably recorded it, contemplative and vulnerable. It felt like a revelation, even more so because it was clear that it was dawning on so many fans around the globe at the same time and in the same way as it was dawning on you.
The second-most-immediately striking thing about 4:44 is just how quickly it ends: Ten tracks, 36 minutes, and it’s out. In the playlist era of artists pushing their albums’ run-times well past single-CD constraints — both Drake and DJ Khaled’s latest sets very casually ran past the 80-minute mark — for JAY-Z to revert to Illmatic lengths for his latest is certainly jarring. But it makes perfect sense for 4:44: Like any good social-media bender, when you’re out of stuff to say, the move is to just log off. And all the rest of us can do is set a Twitter alert and go back to sleep.