If the rap world is anything, it’s a game of thrones. There are self-proclaimed Kings in every corner of the realm, scrambling to be seen as number one. Regions with unique sounds each celebrate their own patron saints, their unique ancestries and evolution, their own claim to a pivotal role in history - the hip-hop pioneers in the East, the Gangsta Rappers in the West, the Dirty South. Proud, powerful kingdoms everywhere. Alliances come and go, friendships are made and broken, and rivalries have been known to end careers, and even lives. It’s a dog eat dog world, in which you can only trust the people very closest to you, and sometimes not even them.
It’s in the epicenter of this chaotic, brutal realm that Jay Z emerged. The Brooklyn native made his money selling cocaine on the streets of New York in the 1980s, using the profits to fund his initial music ventures. When he wasn’t getting shot at during deals-gone-bad, he was selling CDs out of his car because no record label would sign him. His ascension was the realest of the real, whose journey lives underneath the lyrics of every ‘came from nothing’ rap song today, the archetypical story of hip-hop, that so many others are desperate to emulate for their own bragging rights.
Of course, Shawn Carter has had a lot to brag about in the last 20 years. His first album, Reasonable Doubt, is still hailed as one of the greatest rap albums of all time, and kicked off the Jay Z era. The rarely disputed King of the game is now worth around $800 million, he has the most number 1 solo albums in US Billboard history, second only to The Beatles, and has his own queen in Beyonce, herself one of the greatest artists of this generation. He has established a business empire consisting of music labels, sports agencies, night clubs, private jet companies, and more. He’s fought off challenges to his rule from the very best, and emerged more than intact. In a hyper-aggressive, macho kingdom, Jay Z has been the alpha and on top of his game since he first came up.
But under the legendary persona, Jay Z is still just a man, Shawn Carter. 4:44, his latest album, is the first time we have seen Carter as an artist, open up to this truth. The truth is that the warrior-king in 'Jay Z' must eventually be put to rest, or Carter risks a mid-life crisis. Being a young man, an invincible conqueror, never getting old or settling down, never having anybody to hold him to account, is the spirit of hip-hop. For 20 years, Carter has been happily feeding the Jay Z beast. His affably impeccable braggadocious lyrics have defined his sound, his ego and hyper-masculinity has been unchecked, his wealth and success on full display, and his rivals met with absolute wrath. The Jay Z we grew up listening to has been accountable only to himself and where he decides to limit his own power.
I said “don’t embarrass me” instead of “be mine"
This began to seemingly change in 2016, with the drop of Beyonce’s visual album, Lemonade. Titled after the “when life gives you lemons…” saying, it was the story of Carter’s infidelity. The oppression of black women, adulterous behavioral patterns of the men in her life, and the “thin line between love and hate”, as one critic put it, were central themes of the album, and exposed details of Carter’s apparent failures as a husband. Angry Beyonce fans blew up Twitter with memes of Carter looking humiliated, broken, and exposed. The biggest blow to Carter's invincible image had been dealt not by any of the hungry rappers that have challenged him in the past, but by his wife.
He only want me when I'm not there
4:44 is the overdue, much anticipated reaction of Jay Z: a redefining of himself, as a father and a husband. It’s a universal story, he must admit to himself that he can no longer chase individual wants success as his priority in life, and focus on the collective spirit that comes with establishing a legacy. This revelation often comes with difficulty. For decades, Jay Z haas helped define the essence of hip-hop. It’s not in Jay Z's nature to want to submit to anything that isn’t himself. But to bring order and happiness back to his family, he must face his failures and become something else.
The rapper realizes he has to ‘Kill Jay Z’. The first track on the album is a self-described “killing of the ego”. Jay Z has been the alpha-male, the king for over 20 years, doing what he wants when he wants, and running the game. Carter knows his marriage and relationship with his children is at risk because of who he is, so he is saying goodbye to what he was, in order to be more open and vulnerable.
Carter notably addresses his strained relationship with Kanye West - whose story could be said to reflect what Carter might be scared of turning into. Kanye’s struggles through marriage and fatherhood have arguably been very evident in recent years - with bizarre rants on stage, an alienated friendship with Carter, cancelled tours and hospital admissions. The picture Carter briefly paints in 4:44 is that of a man in chaos, who hasn’t yet conquered his demons, nor learned to adapt his life and self to suit the needs of his family. Carter is almost contrasting this chaos with who he wants to be - a stable father and husband.
Throughout 4:44 emerges a Jay Z who learns to submit to husbandry and fatherhood, whilst also keeping the individual and hyper-masculine parts of himself which will continue to serve him. He is working his new life into his old one - figuring out how Jay Z can make Shawn Carter happy. This struggle is portrayed well on the second song, ‘The Story of OJ’. The title is a play on the novel ‘The Story of O’. The titular character, O, is a woman whose love for a man pushes her to be more and more submissive as the story unfolds, resulting in her being graphically used for the pleasure of others, just because she loves this man. O is a financially successful and independent woman, but nonetheless loses who she is to this struggle. The main theme of the novel is submission and freedom in a romantic relationship. The Story of O reflects Jay Z’s natural concerns about submitting parts of who he is for his relationships - at first, he is scared he may change for the worse if he has to give up parts of who he is to be a father and a husband.
‘The Story of OJ’ describes the conflict between the “house ni**a” and the “field ni**a” - a reference to slavery, when house slaves were not treated as harshly and would be more likely to choose their servitude over the risks of attempting escape, whereas the slaves in the field had a very hard life, and more often wanted to take the risk. This reflects the inner conflict inside Jay Z when coming to terms with the fact that he must accept his responsibilities to his family, rather than to his own selfish pursuits. Carter appears to begin embracing this, with the line “What’s more important than throwing money away at a strip club? Credit.” Carter is realizing how investing in families and relationships pays off, rather than the superficial physical relationships often portrayed and bragged about in hip-hop culture.
Our external reality is an opportunity to heal our internal upset
Jay Z’s maturity, as established in this album, is symbolic for the way hip-hop is growing up. Note the themes of black-owned enterprise throughout 4:44, with Carter assuming a paternal approach to hip-hop in many songs. In ‘Family Feud’, he is the father-figure, discouraging the “old vs new” beefs, promoting the growth and social responsibility of the entire community - “What’s better than one billionaire? Two. Especially when they from the same hue as you.” Carter references the Godfather movies, comparing himself to an almost-Michael Corleone - who ignores his father’s advice to focus on the family above all else, instead becoming consumed by a life of crime and wealth - eventually resulting in the death of his child.
Having played the game of thrones so well, for so long, Carter is trying to 'break the wheel'. Hip-hop’s state of infancy has passed, and what started as a sub-culture has transformed into something bigger than any single artist. Hip-hop has more power than its original pioneers ever imagined, with artists like Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar showing how much good can be achieved through it. Adolescence is no longer an excuse, 4:44 is not only Jay Z’s welcoming of his own maturation, but a paternal call to all of hip-hop to come together and realize the bigger picture - building together.
Generational wealth, that's the key
4:44 is the birth of a new Shawn Carter, finding peace acknowledging his mistakes and letting go of certain parts of his rap king persona - the behavior that led to his family almost falling apart - and entering a new stage in life: as a husband, and father to not just his children, but the entire hip-hop community.
"People are permeable and art is never produced in a vacuum. I like exploring the political and social context of music."