Hov is back. With 4:44 everyone’s on notice.
I’m ride or die for Jay-Z but this isn’t meant to be a puff-piece or hagiographic. That said, I’ll get this out of the way now: listening to it for the first time felt like a religious experience.
Golf club music? Really? I can literally here a collective “c’mon man” coming from Chuck, Kenny, Shaq, and Ernie. Tell me what back nine is rocking this album and I’ll put my name in the lottery to become a member tomorrow. When I heard the critiques from contemporaries and new blood alike, it came off as misguided and petty. They’re swiping at somebody who retired from the rap game and comes back and goes platinum before the album is in wide release. We’re talking about an artist — scratch that, mogul — who just because he’s not rapping about struggle is somehow soft. But the album does a much better job than I ever could in its own defense. It summarily answers the critics before they even had a chance to criticize. Like dirt off a shoulder (I couldn’t resist).
I can’t fully put into words what I thought while listening through the whole album two times last night. The first intelligible thing that surfaces, though, is Jay-Z brought back the institutional and cultural heft of an album. 4:44 is an album. It is a wonderful display of storytelling, continuity, command and control.
I just heard Jimmy Iovine (who was one of many music luminaries called out in the album) lamenting the lost art of the album: getting in a room, taking time, years sometimes, and grinding out songs that fit a pattern and leave a mark, long after they’ve been released.
4:44 accomplished the ultimate goal of any art that sees the light of day: it won’t soon be forgotten. It passes the three year test. It passes the five year test. And the honesty and musical genre mashups and sampling put it on the shortlist for memorable-in-10-years-club.
Lot’s of opinions and analysis focused on the album’s release, the windowing strategy in particular. But didn’t Jay already address this a long time ago?
“I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man.”
Brand partnerships are the new record label. Granted, he has most, if not all, of the leverage at this stage of his career. But, nevertheless, he’s laying out the blueprint (couldn’t help myself, again). He even spells it out clearly on track 2, “The Story of O.J.”:
“Ya’ll out here still takin’ advances, huh?
Me and my n****s takin’ real chances, uh
Y’all on the ‘Gram holdin money to your ear
There’s a disconnect, we don’t call that money over here”
Since this whole thing got me in a lyrical state of mind, like Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote for Moana: what’s the message, what is the takeaway?
Here, it’s not breakaways like the movie. It’s breaking through and triumphing over an entrenched industry with non-pliable rights holders.
Yeah, it’s crazy hard and probably damn near impossible to reach the level of a Jay-Z. But the tools available to artists today were not even fractionally available to him when Reasonable Doubt came out.
Artists today can do more with less and can self promote and brand themselves all while keeping control of their own masters. Sure, Sprint is not going to throw down for any and all artists. But there are plenty of companies and brands out there that will identify with your music and wish to strategically align with you.
So take notes. Jay-Z is a prime case study in brand building, content and message control. It definitely helps that his product (his music) is world class, for the 13th time. For that reason alone, give it a spin. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy and marvel at the privilege of what you’re hearing. I know I did. ✌🏼