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JAY-Z Bares His Soul On '4:44'

JAY-Z, shown performing at Barclays Center of Brooklyn Oct. 20, 2015, has released <em>4:44</em>, his first album in four years.
Jamie McCarthy
Getty Images for TIDAL
JAY-Z, shown performing at Barclays Center of Brooklyn Oct. 20, 2015, has released 4:44, his first album in four years.

JAY-Z opens his latest album, 4:44, by slaying his own ego.

For an MC who's spent his entire career constructing such a formidable facade, it's a tall task. But "Kill Jay Z" sets the stage for what becomes his most personal, vulnerable album yet — and arguably one of his best.

Why the title 4:44? Because he woke up at 4:44 a.m. one morning and wrote the album's title track, he tells iHeartRadio. "I just believe it's one of the best songs I've ever written," he says — which is good, because it's also the song people have been waiting a whole year for him to write.

He and wifey Beyoncé share a lot of connections with the number four — birth dates, their anniversary date, even their favorite president was No. 44. In "4:44," he apologizes for putting it all on the line with the alleged infidelity that made Beyoncé's Lemonade so bittersweet: "I suck at love, I think I need a do-over / I would be emotionally available if I invited you over." But Hov goes even further, apologizing to all the women he may have hurt in the past. "It took for my child to be born," he raps, "to see through a woman's eyes."

/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

He doesn't stop there. In "The Story of O.J.," he shuts down the assumption that success is a salve for racism. And in "Smile," he reveals his mother's closeted sexual identity ("Mama had four kids, but she's a lesbian / Had to pretend so long that she's a thespian").

It's a soul-baring narrative from a rapper and entrepreneur who continues to push himself to the forefront of the genre, despite being past what many consider to be his prime. At the same time, he's pioneering new terrain for a youthful genre that has struggled to mature in subject matter since reaching its midlife crisis. In "Family Feud," he addresses rap's generation gap head on, imploring younger artists to protect their wealth — black wealth, which has been so historically undervalued and pillaged by an unforgiving industry. As he approaches 50, post-retirement JAY-Z sounds as vital as he ever, while paving the way for the next generation of MCs to age gracefully on the mic.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: June 29, 2017 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous Web version of this story referred to the Knowles-Carters as a family of four. The arrival of their twins brings the total to five.
Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he documented the city's rise as rap's capital outpost for a decade while serving as music editor, staff culture writer and senior writer for the alt-weekly Creative Loafing. During his tenure there, he won awards for column writing, longform storytelling, editing and reporting on cultural issues ranging from gender to economic inequality. He also conceptualized and co-wrote "Straight Outta Stankonia"—an exhaustive look at Atlanta's gentrifying cultural landscape through the lens of OutKast—which was voted as one of the Atlanta Press Club's Top 10 Favorite Stories of the Past 50 Years.
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