After a four-year studio album drought, JAY-Z returned shortly before midnight Friday with his 13th studio album, 4:44. The Brooklyn hip-hop titan largely kept the new full-length under wraps — after keeping secret the names of your twins with pop’s biggest superstar, concealing an LP’s credits is easy — and speculation about the project only ramped up in earnest when he announced he was adding the hyphen back into his name and released a series of black-and-white teaser videos featuring Mahershala Ali, Lupita Nyong’o, and Danny Glover.
Like any JAY-Z release, 4:44 is an opulent set of songs, with expensive samples and A-list guests. But it also exhibits more artistic restraint than the rapper’s excessively decadent 2013 album Magna Carta… Holy Grail, from a comparatively short roster of contributors to a 36-minute run time that’s 22 minutes shorter than Magna Carta. Read on for EW’s first-listen highlights, and then find out how you can listen to the album here.
JAY-Z explains his name change out of the gate
When Jay released Magna Carta in 2013, his life was seemingly going great. He’d made a boatload selling his stake in the Brooklyn Nets, enjoyed raves for his 2011 collaborative album with Kanye West, and welcomed his daughter, Blue Ivy, into the world. Later that year, Beyoncé would release her self-titled masterpiece, which explained in vivid detail why being married to Shawn Carter ruled. Then things went down the drain: A fight with Beyoncé’s sister Solange that played out in the tabloids, negative reviews for Magna Carta, commercial challenges facing his streaming service TIDAL, and, most notably, Beyoncé’s album-length evisceration Lemonade. The hyphenless years weren’t good ones for Jay. So, on 4:44‘s opener “Kill Jay Z,” the rapper immediately turns a critical eye on himself, listing his personal failings over the last four years and illustrating the symbolism of readopting the hyphen.
4:44 is also an apology
JAY-Z doesn’t only list off his sins — he also tries to atone for them. “You egged Solange on, knowin’ all along, all you had to say was wrong,” he raps on “Kill Jay Z,” lacerating himself for almost losing his wife and child in the subsequent years. On the album’s title track, he’s even more direct, beginning with the line, “Look, I apologize, often womanize,” before detailing his failings as a husband and father. “I fall short of what I say I’m all about,” he says. “My heart breaks for the day I had to explain my mistakes / And the mask goes away and Santa Claus is fake.”
It’s light on buzzy guests…
Magna Carta featured guest appearances from Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, Nas, Rick Ross, and Justin Timberlake, as well as an all-star team of producers that included Rick Rubin, Mike Will Made-It, Swizz Beats, Mike Dean, Pharrell, Timbaland, and Boi-1da. Beyoncé, Ocean, Damian Marley, The-Dream, Kim Burrell, and Jay’s mom, Gloria Carter, all appear here, but their roles feel more contained and economical. And by tapping longtime affiliate No I.D. — who produced the 2009 smash “Run This Town” — Jay significantly whittled down his lengthy production roster, yielding a more cohesive product in the process.
…but heavy on iconic samples.
JAY-Z’s discography has long been defined by its famous (read: expensive) samples, from 1998’s Annie-sampling anthem “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” to the Otis Redding-honoring “Otis” on 2011’s Watch the Throne. “Smile” prominently flips Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life opener “Love’s In Need of Love Today,” while “Caught Their Eyes” samples Nina Simone’s “Baltimore” to effectively put her in conversation with Frank Ocean. In another instance, JAY-Z nods to ’90s hip-hop by deploying the Fugees’ “Fu-Gee-La” — which was used recently by DJ Khaled and Nas on 2016’s “Nas Album Done” — on “Moonlight.”
JAY-Z isn’t only introspective on 4:44
Listeners will focus on JAY-Z’s personal admissions when discussing 4:44, and rightly so — his since-healed rift with Beyoncé dominated headlines last year and it’s the most personal work he has released in some time. But he also turns a critical eye outward. He interrogates the concept of blackness on “The Story of O.J.,” scoffing at O.J. Simpson’s famous line that he’s “not black” but “O.J.” And, as its title suggests, “Moonlight” extrapolates broader significance from this year’s Best Picture fiasco at the Oscars: “We stuck in La La Land / Even when we win, we gon’ lose.”
It’s not musically forward-thinking…
One reason Magna Carta sagged was because it felt like Jay was trying too hard to keep up with current trends. So it’s refreshing that on 4:44 he sticks to the dusty soul, blues, and R&B samples that’ve been his bread-and-butter throughout his career. And his savvy choice of No I.D. — who worked on much of Vince Staples’ boundary-pushing 2015 album Summertime ’06 — as the project’s producer guarantees that 4:44 isn’t completely detached from modern hip-hop.
…but it’s topically progressive.
Migos have enjoyed a massive year commercially and critically — but they drew significant ire when they made homophobic comments in a January Rolling Stone story. They’re not the only members of the hip-hop community who’ve lagged behind America’s broader embrace of the LGBTQ community. For that reason, it’s significant that JAY-Z took an open-minded, progressive approach in 4:44‘s lyrics. “Moonlight” addresses the cultural significance of the Oscar-winning film about a young black man who struggles with his sexuality — a boundary-pushing piece of art in its own right — and on “Smile,” Jay cedes the floor to his mother, who uses the forum to publicly come out as lesbian on the final day of Pride Month. “Lesbian women are all too often erased or excluded from narratives surrounding LGBTQ people,” GLAAD’s CEO and president wrote in a note praising the song. “By sharing her truth with the world, Gloria Carter is increasing visibility of lesbian women of color at a critical time and sending a powerful message of empowerment to the entire LGBTQ community that is perfectly timed with the end of Pride Month.”