Things aren’t good right now. We want something to hold on to, something to revere, something to blame, something to get to leave behind—because we are under late capitalism, whether we deny or accept that. Things that stick out from the endless reproduction of whiteness are like whales jumping out of a wide ocean. Perception of life below the cold, placid surface is a reprieve from having to think about our own mundane complicity in everything we see and touch.
With 4:44, Shawn Carter has written a whale of an album about black excellence in an ocean of white noise. On “Legacy,” Jay-Z has his daughter, Blue Ivy, introduce his sermon: “Daddy, what’s a will?” He then sets up the story that defines the album: “We’re gonna start a society within a society […] Generational wealth, that’s the key […] Legacy, legacy, legacy, black excellence, baby, let them see.”
Carter’s narrative framework doesn’t submit to any Booker T. Washington–style respectability politics, nor to the idea that having money engenders any type of infallibility. If anything, his words make clear that, when you’re carving a table for your people to sit at, when you grew up with no table at all, you’re more vulnerable to criticism due to the threat of your presence. Carter’s power and presence are unlike what has built most white capitalists, who get to profit off people of color. Instead, Carter is profiting off of himself, his story, and his success against all odds.
Carter gets at this on the track “Smile”: “Hall of fame Hov, I did it all without a pen / Y’all knew that was comin’, I had to remind y’all again, huh? […] Bad times turn to good memories.” The track channels the sentiment of Tupac’s “Dear Mama” by acknowledging the hard times that make the better ones mean something beyond dollar signs. Sampling Stevie Wonder’s “Love Needs to Feel Love Today,” the track is a time machine into Carter’s past. His mom, Gloria Carter, closes off the track with a quote referencing her lesbianism and single motherhood: “Living two lives, happy, but not free / You live in the shadows for fear of someone hurting your family or the person you love / The world is changing and they say it’s time to be free.” You can hear her breath.
On the record as a whole, Carter is not asking about whether or not to engage with capitalism in order to fight it. He’s stating that he sees his journey from a poor childhood in a single-parent household to building generational wealth—which seems to be more than money—as his legacy of black excellence. This, Carter’s thirteenth platinum album, is about the potential and kinetic energy of living a life filled with natural contradictions—also known as existing, especially as a black man in the United States. To that point, on “Moonlight,” Carter uses a reference to the Moonlight versus La La Land Oscar snafu to point out white entitlement. A simple cultural reference makes relevant the aggressions that people of color face from white liberals, “Please don’t talk about guns that you ain’t never gon’ use. Y’all always tell on y’allself. […] Y’all stuck in La La Land. Even when we win, we gon’ lose.” The tension between success as a subjective signifier based on whether it benefits or threatens people is made clear.
At times, it feels like Jay-Z is throwing his entrepreneurial skills around in a way that should land him a TV show like The Apprentice for rappers from modest means. But he contrasts his success with more difficult moments of his biography. In “Caught Their Eyes,” featuring Frank Ocean, Jay-Z raps, “How could you see the difference between you and I? My crash course was much tougher. ’Round friends who kill their friends, then hug their friends’ mothers.” These tender lyrics do not excuse his clearly masculine and heteronormative lyrics on 4:44, as when he makes excuses, most likely to Beyoncé, pleading, “I said: ‘Don’t embarrass me,’ instead of ‘Be mine.’ That was my proposal for us to go steady […] You matured faster than me, I wasn’t ready.” Jay-Z alludes to his difficulty being forthright with those he loves: “My heart breaks for the day I have to explain my mistakes, and the mask goes away.” The toxic masculinity that requires the mask is an ongoing battle that 4:44 can’t be expected to solve, which is acknowledged in part in the aforementioned fear.
The album is an act of self-restoration and reflection. On 4:44, we meet Jay-Z as a person in progress—a fallible man with perfect dreams, the potential to mess up, and the potential to change. He gets heat for his frankness: Throughout the extended release, Jay-Z was subject to plenty of criticism. Adam Serwer’s Atlantic essay “The Story of Jay-Z” aptly addresses the contradictions and tensions of Carter as an artist and unravels the context of Jay’s references to black and Jewish relations.—the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement about the “odious and false” lyrics on the “Story of O.J.,” in which Jay-Z raps, “You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club? Credit / You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America? This how they did it.” Serwer recognizes that, ultimately, Carter is helping his economic bottom line, but points out that “Shawn Corey Carter’s politics have simplified in disappointing ways, [and] that’s come with an emotional maturity Jay-Z never had.” Serwer was one of the few music journalists to really delve into the black and Jewish relations that the album references, writing, “If American blacks had the same access to credit as American Jews… the Bed-Stuy that created Shawn Carter would never have existed.” Ultimately, the same disease that causes anti-Semitism is that which causes anti-blackness and racism. The problem is clearly beyond Carter and has to do with white supremacy at large, but it’s easy to identify a target in the form of Carter’s lyrics.
As these critiques were levied, Jay-Z released a footnote video for that same song featuring Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, and Chris Rock talking about their interactions with the police and being black in America. Just like Jay-Z has matured through the years, critiques of his work will hopefully mature, too. It’s true that the document deserves to be read and critiqued, and that’s because all art with value and power comes with a cost for its vitality and boldness. It is up to us, and to who we are, to determine the dissonance between 4:44’s intent and impact. We’ll look for that dissonance much more than we would if this were a Taylor Swift, Drake, Rancid, or Common album. Because Jay-Z is a king: He’s black, he’s smart, and he’s a cultural alchemist, bearing the truth of contradictions (which so many people of color commonly hold) as his raw material. The pursuit of wealth may not have solved all of Jay-Z’s problems, and it won’t solve ours, either. Perhaps it’s not that Jay-Z’s money can buy him anything he, Bey, and Blue want, but that his bad times have been transformed into something better—that he’s navigated capitalism to find some version of healing within the trauma of America.