The five stages of listening to “4:44,” the 13th solo studio album by American rapper Jay-Z:
1. Irritation. There are fans, there are stans, and there are those willing to renege their cellular service just to get some new Jay-Z songs in their airspace. I’ve yet to encounter anyone from that third demographic in real life, but they must have been somewhere out there Friday morning. That’s when rap’s preeminent captain of industry began pumping his contemplative new album, “4:44,” exclusively through Tidal, the subscription-based streaming platform that he co-owns.
Here was the flaming hoop: If you hadn’t signed up for Tidal days in advance, you were required to ink a new mobile contract with Sprint. For information-age babies addicted to convenience, this was incredibly annoying. For listeners who still believe in music as a sacred event, it was insulting. And even for a rapper who continues to treat his congregants like consumers, it was lousy customer service.
So maybe you found a downloadable version of “4:44” floating in the digital current, and maybe you took notice when Jay-Z blasted the pirates who “rip your s--- off Tidal just to spite you.” Obviously, artists should be paid for their work, but does our refusal to enter two separate billing cycles for the privilege of hearing a new Jay-Z album qualify as an act of spite?
2. Rubbernecking. Oh man, so he did cheat on Beyoncé, and Solange did rough him up in that elevator over it, and he is miffed at Kanye, plus he sees a therapist, and his mom is gay, and for a few hours on Friday, there were not enough species of emoji to express the cumulative jolt of these disclosures.
3. Relief. Once you finish gasping, breathe easy. This is the first cogent Jay-Z album in nearly a decade — partially because all of the beats come from the sympathetic producer No I.D., and partially because our hero has finally entered the confessional mode of the era. Yes, Kanye West and Drake made vulnerability a standard posture in rap music countless moons ago, but Jay’s late arrival isn’t merely a capitulation to the style. He has significant things to atone for — most notably, his infidelity to a singer who turned their marital strife into “Lemonade,” one of the most commanding pop albums of the 21st century.
Now it’s Jay-Z’s turn to spill, and his new album’s title track makes for an extraordinary act of contrition. The words “I apologize” appear seven times, and if his throat sounds lumpy, it’s because he sees his shame billowing out into the future: “If my children knew, I don’t even know what to do . . . My heart breaks for the day I have to explain my mistakes.” Has a couple ever aired out such dirty laundry so publicly? Not in song. Not with this much grace, either.
Elsewhere, the social injustices that have always been targeted on Jay-Z’s lyric sheet are cast in sharper-than-usual relief. It would probably be useless to paraphrase “The Story of O.J.” here — you need to hear every syllable fall from the rapper’s mouth as he recounts the devastation of American racism in his most conversational voice. On the very next track — the sunny, chattering “Smile” — he covers even more ground, rehashing his therapy sessions, revealing that his mother is a lesbian and, in the final stanzas, showing how discrimination is baked into the language of capitalism: “We deny black entrepreneurs free enterprise/ That’s why it’s a black market, that’s why it’s called the trap/ That’s why it’s called the projects, ’cause it’s exactly that.”
That’s the kind of righteous lyricism that we’ve come to expect from Jay-Z, but if you need stand-alone proof that poetry continuously scrolls across the news ticker of his consciousness, listen to the taut neo-funk of “Caught in Their Eyes” when he renders the act of weeping in rhyme: “Memories may sneak down my cheek.”
4. Second-guessing. The intimacy of “4:44” is almost startling, and while it’s your invitation to listen closely, go ahead and zone out when Jay describes his decision against buying real estate in Dumbo as “dumbo.” Or when he goes out of his way to cite “Hamlet.” Or when he asks, “You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America?” Or when he tangentially apologizes to his sister-in-law, Solange, for their galactically hyped fracas with a strained breakfast metaphor: “Let go your ego over your right shoulder/ Your left is sayin’, ‘Finish your breakfast!’/ You egged Solange on/ Knowin’ all along, all you had to say you was wrong.”
Or on “Moonlight” when Jay accuses today’s rappers of becoming so interchangeable, “I don’t know who is who.” That’s disappointing. Rap music has never been more hospitable to a wider spectrum of styles, tones, moods or modes than it is right now, and the maestro’s inability to hear it works against the empowerment he’s always preaching. He’s paving a highway six lanes wide, then scolding those who don’t follow precisely in his footsteps. “Dream bigger” still means “dream exactly like I do.”
5. Bargaining. In a digital age that never forgets, maybe bargaining is the new acceptance. Jay-Z is giving us new things on “4:44.” He’s bravely whispering his shame directly into our ear. But it’s new only for him, and his slow progress toward self-exposure still feels at odds with the maniac velocity of rap writ large — a speed that allows the music to swing moods and metabolize styles faster than any other American art form. He’s a leader, and he’s lagging behind, but not as badly as before. Hip-hop hooray? Our pleasure can feel so confusing when one of the greats simply does good.