Jay-Z's June 2017 was momentous. The 44th president of the United States inducted him as the first rap lyricist into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. The Beyoncé Knowles-Shawn Carter family added fourth and fifth members. Going by a jocular shot at specific Al Sharpton social media activity within, there was also the completion of 4:44, delivered on the last of the month. Approach-wise, the 13th Jay-Z studio album is a change of course for its employment of only one beatmaker, No I.D., whose previous Jay-Z credits across a decade plus -- a comparatively flashy crop that includes a major portion of The Blueprint 3 -- amount to an album's worth of tracks, primarily as co-producer. Even more noteworthy is its chronological distinction as a follow-up to Beyoncé's Lemonade, a cathartic album prompted in part by Jay-Z's extramarital behavior. This somehow makes album 13 seem older than its true age. From any other artist, 36 minutes of repentance, self-satisfaction, and wisdom regarding issues such as faithfulness, vast wealth, ethical consumption, and the deficiencies of a younger rap generation would likely fall flat, but Jay-Z continues to write at a Hall of Fame level and raps with high levels of conviction, contrition, and wit. He and No I.D. are consistently attuned. The whole album has a fine matte-like finish with nuanced rhythms and soul, funk, reggae, and prog samples that frequently enhance the tracks on an emotional level, not just a sonic one. Even the Frank Ocean and Beyoncé appearances sound sourced from a crate. Filled with references to profit and forms of pride granted by birth and earned by hustling, 4:44 nonetheless is an unglamorous set well suited for solitary and reflective late-night listening. There are no radio play bids. Jay-Z has been in this mode at various points, but never in such concentrated, enlightened form, whether the subject is his mistakes as a husband, the struggles of his long-closeted lesbian mother, the effects of enduring systemic racism, or the assertion of his supremacy.
by Andy Kellman