JAY-Z is about to release 4:44, his first album in four years and his fifth since his 2003 retirement, which almost certainly drew a line in the sand for longtime fans who’ve been mostly unhappy with his post-hiatus output since. (The gap between 2013’s Magna Carta… Holy Grail and 2017’s 4:44 is actually longer than his “retirement.”) The critical exceptions have been 2007’s pretty-good American Gangster — a late-period critical triumph that is now ten years old — and 2011’s excellent Kanye West collab Watch the Throne, which addressed black America in socioeconomic and political terms like very little else in Jay’s catalog before it.
As for the perceived failures, 2009’s vastly underrated pop-crossover smash The Blueprint 3 and yes, the mildly undervalued Magna Carta… Holy Grail weren’t as thematically focused, and they were suitably punished for it. But those albums (along with 2006’s agreed-upon letdown Kingdom Come) beg the question of what exactly we even want from an upcoming Jay album and what we could even possibly get.
For the most successful rapper in the world (and recently the first one to ever enter the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame), it’s kind of absurd how little people currently expect of him. But pretty simply, at 47 he’s been popular and acclaimed for longer than any other rapper, and no one really knows what to do with that. Icons like Rev Run, Chuck D, and LL Cool J have more or less ceded the spotlight via some kind of unspoken agreement; when’s the last time a rapper actually plotted a comeback or had the savvy to pull it off?
That’s why it feels like so much is riding on 4:44 — and one reason it’s important to assess how the people dismissing most of his post-2003 output have actually been pretty spoiled. Starting with Kingdom Come, an admittedly awkward “first game back” that Jay himself ranked last, at least the always-hot Just Blaze brought his A-game with the thunderous, “Whipping Post”-sampling “Oh My God” and “Super Freak”-deconstructing title track up top. American Gangster is spottier than its reputation — which was probably inflated due to necessity after Kingdom Come, and because of its more satisfying “Wait, wait, I remember more crime tales from my youth!” conceit, after Kingdom Come failed to posit 30-something life in a beach chair beside Chris Martin as attractive to his older fans. But “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is…)” and the Nas olive branch “Success” were a boisterous relief, and gratifying reminder of old times.
It was The Blueprint 3 that truly made him a shoe-in for the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, though, and so little of its artistic and commercial success depended on the rapping that the Reasonable Doubt diehards finally threw up their hands. It was a pop album, through and through — and a great one, helping introduce Drake to the masses with a futuristic Timbaland beat on “Off That” that would seem ill-fitting now, but remains addictive as ever. “Empire State of Mind” you may still be sick of, but the less-overplayed “On to the Next One” made a lean banger out of a Justice children’s choir sample, and “Reminder” was his most credible dancehall ripoff since “Lucifer.” The album wasn’t lyrically notable for the most part, but it wasn’t lyrically weak either, the words were just supporting something larger than rapping, the most surefire pop hooks he ever put himself behind.
Watch the Throne teamed Jigga up with Kanye West to examine the duo’s increasingly peerless level of riches. They did this philosophically, via Frank Ocean’s hubris-cautioning chorus on “No Church in the Wild,” hedonistically on “Niggas in Paris,” which he and West took great pleasure in performing more than ten times in a row on some nights of the accompanying tour, and moralistically on “Made in America,” including a verse in which Jay confessed to a moment his grandma caught him cooking crack. It was one of his best lyrical turns in years.
Magna Carta… Holy Grail was something else, though, and artistically, it never quite found its footing in slogans like “I don’t pop Molly, I rock Tom Ford,” or in the overblown, five-minute-plus Justin Timberlake opener “Holy Grail.” But its heart is what matters, particularly to the discussion of what would come next. Holy Grail was the first time since 2006’s “30 Something” and “Beach Chair” where Jay made an attempt to really act his age, writing autobiographically about something other than his hustle.
Namely, family: the bass-powered “Picasso Baby” was an underrated look at what JAY-Z, the man, the band, can offer his first-born Blue Ivy, with his and his equally-or-even-more-powerful wife Beyoncé’s accrued celebrity and wealth. He instructs her to lean on an expensive Basquiat painting because she owns it. It may be secretly one of the most powerful moments in rap history, because for all the millions of materialist hip-hop mixtapes boasting of how much money and power an artist has attained, this man purged his sins (publicly, at least), wrote a memoir and befriended President Barack Obama — all in the service of passing this self-earned privilege onto his daughter, whom just last week acquired twin siblings.
JAY-Z’s fatherhood hovered over Grail in a way that completely alters the way it can be heard. Whereas Kingdom Come fell flat on its face with a My Chemical Romance pun, there’s a dad-joke charm when he can’t resist riffing off Ocean’s Eleven in a song called “Oceans” featuring Frank Ocean, twice. And there’s now a elder-critic feel in “Somewhereinamerica,” when the line “Somewhere in America, Miley Cyrus is still twerking” cuts harder now that Cyrus is no longer borrowing from black culture than it did the year #Bangerz came out. (Don’t worry, Jay half-singing “Losing My Religion” in “Heaven” still makes no sense.) But thus far, Chance the Rapper is the only other major player who’s put so much of his life as a new father into commercially impactful rap.
There’s another factor riding against 4:44 in the public eye: Beyoncé’s 2016 critical and commercial landmark Lemonade was completely tied to a largely uncontested narrative in which Jay cheated on his wife, who may be the most fervently beloved artist of this generation. Early reports teased the idea that Jay might release an album telling “his side” of the story, but even a Tidal owner knew that would be career suicide.
Then again, the short film or visual album reportedly attached to 4:44 via a Tidal exclusive boasts the Oscar-winning likes of Mahershala Ali, Lupita Nyong’o, and Danny Glover, and could do for his artistic career what Beyoncé and Lemonade did for his bride’s — we forget today, but 2011’s preceding 4 album was considered somewhat of a commercial disappointment. And with Jay’s newfound political clout, the man behind the Katrina-damaged “Minority Report” and the sly missive “Reagan turned me into a monster” from “Blue Magic” could be gearing up for his grandest political statement yet.
The legendary MC-whisperer No I.D. is rumored to be producing 4:44 in its entirety, which is fitting considering he’s been a fly on the wall through generation after generation of hip-hop. He helmed Common’s breakthrough single “I Used to Love H.E.R.” in 1994, and went on to mentor Kanye West, specifically through the period from 808s and Heartbreak to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, where West’s sound ended up radically changing the rap landscape altogether. He was last seen turning Vince Staples into an underground superstar on Summertime ’06. No I.D.’s innumerable proximity to various big and small landmarks of the genre spans such a long time that it would be only fitting for him to go mano y mano with rap’s longest-running champ.
Finally, that title definitely signals a deep interest in significance, as JAY-Z’s birthday is December 4, Beyonce’s is September 4, their anniversary is April 4 (4/4). And if you’re feeling particularly illuminati, you could style the name of their firstborn daughter Blue Ivy as Blue IV. Barack Obama, his good friend, was the 44th president of the United States, whom he recently called the “greatest rapper of all time” on Twitter (and swore he wasn’t drunk). Sure, it could amount to something overblown and disconnected — but he and Beyoncé, especially energized by new parenthood, appear to be following the pulse of America as well as any extremely wealthy person right now. And when has underestimating JAY-Z ever done anyone any good?