Let's Unpack Jay-Z's '4:44'

Jul 5, 2017
Originally published on July 5, 2017 5:09 pm

The world has had the better part of a week now, and through a bloated holiday weekend, to digest Jay-Z's latest album, 4:44. With 10 songs spread over 36 minutes, the album wields brevity without sacrificing breadth. Its sound, crafted wholly by producer No I.D., is surprisingly cloudy and narcotic, while Shawn Carter's lyrics are reflective and bent steadfastly toward honesty.

And while Jay may have missed out on a $23 million profit on property in Brooklyn's Dumbo neighborhood, he can still afford to lay bare his feelings — about Beyoncé, Prince, his mom and a lot more. Let's break it down.

The Sales

Jay-Z's relationship with Sprint — which bought a third of Tidal in a deal reportedly worth $200 million — helped spur 4:44 to a platinum certification, or one million album "sales," just five days after its release. That Recording Industry Association of America plaque pictured above is owed in part to a giveaway of the record which Sprint footed the bill for. Here's how it worked:

For 4:44 to have gone platinum without giveaways it would have needed to generate 1.5 billion streams on Tidal, since 1,500 streams of any song from a record is said to equal one "sale" of it. That's a seemingly unfeasible amount of listening for Tidal to have drawn, considering its reported subscriber count is between 350,000 and 1.1 million.

The RIAA doesn't provide detailed breakdowns of sales, but it did offer this clarification to NPR in an email:

A sale counts toward a certification if purchased directly by the customer or a business can purchase the album or song and offer it to fans who must take affirmative steps to acquire the album or song. Fans participated, took action and downloaded JAY-Z's album offered by Sprint.

This isn't the first time Jay-Z has turbocharged his way to a platinum certification. Samsung's million-album giveaway of Magna Carta... Holy Grail did not count towards the charts, but did get a platinum certification. ("If 1 Million records gets SOLD and billboard doesnt report it, did it happen? Ha. #newrules," Jay-Z tweeted at the time.)

The Bombshells

But enough from the boardroom: 4:44 has, predictably, rippled outward in the culture, thanks in no small part to Beyoncé's monumental 2016 album Lemonade, which turned Jay-Z's reported infidelities into one of the millennium's defining musical works.

  • Where Lemonade saw Beyoncé issue warnings, 4:44 finds Jay-Z apologetic and introspective — and playing catch up. "Look, I apologize, often womanize ... Took me too long for this song ... You mature faster than me, I wasn't ready," he raps (into Beyoncé's mic) on "4:44," in response to Lemonade's ultimatums. While explaining each of the record's songs to iHeartRadio, he described that song as "the crux of the album." It's certainly the one that gossip-lovers wanted most to hear.
  • Jay also addresses the continued tumult around Prince's estate, which has ratcheted up in chaos over the past couple of months. On "Caught Their Eyes," which regrinds Nina Simone's cover of Randy Newman's "Baltimore" and features Frank Ocean, Jay-Z says Prince "told me his wishes before he died / [Former Prince estate attorney] L. Londell McMillan must be color blind / Only see green from those purple eyes ... You greedy bastards sold tickets to walk through his house / I'm surprised you didn't auction off the casket."
  • Another lyrical surprise comes on "Smile," when Jay-Z raps: "Mama had four kids, but she's a lesbian / Had to pretend so long that she's a thespian." The song closes with an extended outro from his mother, who writes: "Living two lives, happy, but not free / You live in the shadows for fear of someone hurting / your family or the person you love / The world is changing and they say it's time to be free." The song received praise from GLAAD president and CEO Sara Kate Ellis, who wrote on Twitter that Gloria Carter's coming out was helping to increase the "visibility of lesbian women of color at a critical time."
  • "The Story of O.J." finds Jay working through racial tensions, appropriating racist cartoon styles of the 1930s, '40s and '50s for its video, its chorus steadfastly holding that a black person remains only that in the wider culture, no matter the person's standing.
  • That song also generated some controversy for a line some considered racist, or at least dependent on a stereotype — positive or not. "You wanna know what's more important than throwin' away money at a strip club? Credit / You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America? This how they did it." Some criticized Jay for it, others defended.

The Reactions

Critics worked through the weekend to do 4:44 justice.

  • "Only extreme emotional-spiritual catharsis or extreme stripped-down intimacy would make for a worthwhile comeback," The New York Times' Jon Caramanica observes.
  • Kris Ex pins down its true audience for Mass Appeal: "No, 4:44 doesn't wholly belong to us. It's here for us at times, but it ultimately belongs to Shawn Carter and his family."
  • "There is an undercurrent of helplessness in "4:44" — in the artist's fear that he is incapable of loving completely," Doreen St. Felix writes at The New Yorker. "This fear is countered by an unshakable, nearly frantic faith in wealth. "My wife in the crib feedin' the kids liquid gold," he boasts on "Family Feud.' Jay-Z believes that systemic uplift might be an instrument of communal reparation, a way to heal the people we have hurt."
  • "I joked after Lemonade dropped that the Carter family was about to murder the game as soon as Jay dropped the companion album, Lemons. Well, it turns out that Jay did decide to give us Lemons, he just called it 4:44, and addressed it all in-depth on the song '4:44,'" Panama Jackson writes at Very Smart Brothas.
  • "Elsewhere, the social injustices that have always been targeted on Jay-Z's lyric sheet are cast in sharper-than-usual relief," Washington Post critic Chris Richards observes. "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."

The Future

The rollout is hardly finished. Still to come for 4:44 is a physical release, said to include a track recorded with James Blake, the previously teased "Adnis" and one more song.

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