“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” That’s the hook from the last song in Hamilton, but it could just as easily be a line from Jay-Z’s 4:44. This is an album concerned with legacy—about what we leave behind, about how we’re remembered. It’s about atoning for our shortcomings and shining a light for those who follow after us. It’s a reckoning with Jay’s own legacy but also as a prescription for black excellence, a rewriting of black America’s story.
Jay-Z made 4:44 with producer No I.D., whose beats luxuriate in burnished soul and jazz samples; combined with the relatively light feature roster and the short running time, this makes for the most focused Jay-Z album since The Blueprint. It’s not surprising that, with legacy on his mind, Jay-Z would return to the sound of one of his defining albums, but what is surprising is how much fight he’s got in him. It’s been at least a decade since he sounded this engaged, delivering punchlines with gusto, allowing his voice to creak during moments of confession, varying his flow like the old pro that he is.
The album’s thematic concern with legacy is set with “Kill Jay-Z,” which finds the MC strangling his ego, pledging to forget Jay-Z the brand and to just get real and raw for a few minutes. And he goes right for the hard stuff too, not only responding to the allegations of infidelity that Beyoncé shot his way on Lemonade, but fessing up to them. The backing track has a siren looping through it, and Jay-Z is on red alert: He could have lost everything, and he knows it. In an inversion of the typical hip-hop bravado, he reckons that he’s “gotta get softer,” and his cadence is appropriately cracked and weary.
The next track, “The Story of O.J.” loops a few bars from Nina Simone’s “Four Women” and strikes an altogether different tone. Jay-Z is more feisty and playful here, considering the downfall of famous black men even as he counts his money and swears to do better by his family. “O.J. like, ’I’m not black, I’m O.J.,’” he raps, and there’s a pause where you can almost hear him rolling his eyes. “Okay,” he shrugs, and moves on. Later in the song, he admits that his collection of finer things may strike some as bourgeoisie, but all he cares about is passing them down to his kids. Framed by 4:44’s legacy obsession, it’s his most convincing conflation of wealth with black excellence to date.
Speaking of which, another reference to black excellence shows up in the album’s final song, a triumphal, brass-filled anthem called, of course, “Legacy.” That’s where everything comes together: Jay-Z’s done bad things, and he’s sorry; all he’s ever wanted to do was hustle a better life for his kids, his family, his people. That broad brushstroke is supported by individual songs that make the rapper’s points with surgical precision. “Family Feud” traces his entrepreneurial swagger from cocaine to “black-owned champagne,” a familiar Jay-Z conceit that’s seldom been presented with greater power or economy. And “Marcy Me,” one of his smoothest and toughest flows in ages, looks back to his roots in the Marcy projects as a benchmark for how far he’s come.
There’s not a wasted moment on this rare Jay-Z album that’s too taut and focused for crossover singles or distractions from its central thesis. He takes 4:44 seriously but doesn’t forget to have fun along on the way—and really, there’s no other way to describe his cheerful, crackling energy. It adds up to an album that builds on the themes that he’s pursued his whole life, all while finding new depth within them. It’s one to remember him by.