It's hard to believe, but Jay-Z has been "retired" longer than he was in the game. Following his proposed final work "The Black Album" in 2003, he has become a somewhat divisive entrepreneur whose comeback albums are largely seen as inferior to the pre-retirement years (all eight of them). But what is there to talk about for a rapper who got everything he wanted from buku bucks to a wife that's even more famous? It's part of why his work has become both repetitive and interesting, especially as he's given up braggadocio in favor of turning each album into a study of art culture. On his latest album, "4:44," he makes what is probably the saddest retirement album of his career. Whereas what came before read like a grandpa sharing updates on his Facebook page, he now seems set on being more honest and personal in ways that are disarming. It works, but it continues to show the downside of what it means when you have nothing left to prove.
In a sense, "4:44" is a response album to his wife Beyonce's "Lemonade" album. Where she explored her growth into womanhood through an award-winning music video collage, many took her to tasks for discussing how her vaguely described "boyfriend" did her wrong. Many will likely remember Becky with the Good Hair. She became a meme that also symbolized a belief that Beyonce was holding a public feud with Jay-Z. Becky makes a comeback here, though Jay-Z tries to suggest that the relationship was a mistake. He was a foolish man who should've known better. It's a somber tone, and one that is added to his generally territorial approach to his recent albums. Following the celebratory cries of "Magna Carta Holy Grail" where he boasted about becoming a father, he now worried that he wasn't being a good husband.
This is where the album is at its most interesting. For a rapper who doesn't provide much in the way these days of Top 40 hits, it only makes sense for him to take the confessional approach that artists that he's mentored, like Frank Ocean and Kanye West, have become famous for. The title track in particular plays with such an impressive aggression that you believe that this is a man on his knees, wanting forgiveness from his wife. He was a flawed man, but he wants to do right for his daughter, and believes that they can make change. "4:44" is a song that sees Jay-Z at his most vulnerable, possibly in his whole career. Speaking as there have been songs before with Jay-Z and Beyonce singing happily together, it makes the work more staggering.
It's the hallmark of the album, which opens with a song called "Kill Jay-Z." He is clearly remorseful. For a rapper who got famous for being aggressive, he feels old and battered here. There still are moments where the old Jay-Z comes out, reflecting that he's also isolated from his fans materialistically. He has a privilege that those having to subscribe to his Tidal music service don't. He can buy things that he used to only dream of. It in a way makes Jay-Z into a solid allegory for Jay Gatsby, only we don't know if he's lost his Daisy just yet. Still, Beyonce is far more prevalent in pop culture in the moment, adding a layer of worried defeat for a former Top 40 mainstay.
The best that he could do beyond be personal is explore the hollow life of being rich. He channels this on "The Story of O.J.," which uses famed sports star turned murderer O.J. Simpson as a parallel to his own life. Not in the killing sense, but in that struggle for identity in a society that you've risen above. You still are culturally black, but you aren't limited by your race anymore. While Jay-Z has yet to resort to rent-a-car commercials, he makes some persuasive points for understanding the struggles of a controversial man. If nothing else, it's one of the better references he makes on an album that features some embarrassing lines that, in his younger days, probably would've been sharp attacks. "Moonlight" plays up the recent Academy Awards controversy with La La Land with a half-hearted remark of "Even when we win, we lose." It's times like these that Jay-Z shows his age, finding that he can Netflix and chill all by himself just to understand what the young kids are into. He's also just fine making references to The Godfather and Goodfellas, if you fancy.
Still, the album's biggest success is that it avoids the bigger production of what he's done before. By stripping away any pretentious elements, he bares his soul in a largely straightforward manner. There's no distracting production that is even innovative. This is a man who has nothing to prove but his own integrity. Having exhausted his soul of a fun life, this is a solid yet depressing look into Jay-Z's personal life, and one that seems antithetical to Beyonce's "Lemonade." He doesn't seem to celebrate so much as order a round of drinks and get lost in the booze. It isn't a terrible way to go, but it does suggest that retirement has finally caught up with him, and his lack of impressive new feats is both a blessing and a curse. Odds are that he'll never be a Top 40 artist again. However, he could just be starting a far more interesting period of his career.
Overall Rating: 3 out of 5