To mix metaphors, there’s no point beating around the bush so I’ll start as I mean to go on. 4:44 is a very good album, possibly even a very very good album. There are bars/lines/phrases in there that for different reasons border on genius. You would be hard-pressed to find a more rounded body of work in Hip Hop this year (note that I said hard pressed, not Impossible) and anything that goes against the grain of much of what is considered good Rap music is a very welcome addition to the catalogue. However, what Sean Carter’s latest release does not do (as some are claiming), is instantly elevate him to G.O.A.T status.
Being mature and having a maturity of expression are not mutually exclusive but even for the man that gave us December 4th, 4:44 highlights a new level of candidness and honesty. All of Jay’s previous work -bar Reasonable Doubt- has at some point shown lyrical leanings toward Jay-Z the icon rather than Jay-Z the man. Of course, on his latest outing, we still hear about the money, the investments, the artwork and other ventures but the contexts in which he is using them and the assertions he is conveying speak unapologetically to the man and his young family. I Will happily testify to the sudden life-affirming realisation that hits you the first time you hold your first born and I too can preach to the adjustment your emotions make when you are holding twins. On 4:44, Sean Carter clearly sounds like a man who had the same epiphany I did when my princesses entered the world.
But these factors alone do not make a classic album. Jay made a big sacrifice to let us see the new Sean and for me, it is both what makes and breaks this album. There are times when this new simplicity in Jay’s delivery is nigh on perfection. To convey the thoughts of so many different people on such an emotive subject with one word (OJ like ‘i’m not black I’m OJ’…… Okay!?) Is what Hip Hop is all about. But then there are times where in parts it almost sounds counterproductive. The second verse of Bam, for example, could have done with a little more complexity despite the encouragement of that Sister Nancy sample to the contrary.
But this (sort of) rant is not necessarily about the greatness or lack thereof, of the album itself. It’s about the positive overreaction to it. I myself have commented and replied to other comments on social media, expressing just how good I think some of Jay’s bars are (see the previous paragraph) and on the almost unparalleled greatness of the video for The Story of OJ (it is a thing of dark beauty). What I have easily stopped short of doing, is proclaiming Jay-Z the best ever just because he put an album out. I am a fan of the man the same as the next person but I am not about to lose my sense of history because of Sean Corey Carter or anyone else.
What I have also been doing very recently, is laughing at the clips being put out by some so called Hip Hop experts giving us irrelevant and stupid reasons as to why Jay is the greatest of all time. Anyone clueless enough to think that Mr Carter’s wealth is a factor for consideration should not be in a position to influence opinion one way or the other (Complex??). And quite why that is deemed a consideration in this case yet is something I have never seen used for artists in other genres speaks to a broader question that I will tackle in future. The negative connotations though, are there for all to see.
One thing that hype of this ferocity does make me do is wonder why some of Jay’s peers haven’t enjoyed even a portion of this reaction so far recently. Common for example (a man whose talent Jay famously expressed his admiration for) laced the masses with an album that in parts matched or surpassed most of what 4:44 has to offer. Home, Black America Again, Pyramids and The Day the Women Took Over are all brilliant songs. And yet even winning an Oscar (Glory with John Legend) didn’t generate anywhere near the hype the album deserved.
Some of you will say I’m comparing apples to oranges. That although the two MCs may now slightly overlap conceptually any similarities end there. So how then, if this is the case, do you then proclaim Jay as the G.O.A.T? Isn’t comparing him to Eminem for example, like comparing raisins to grapefruit? We make these judgements through our own particular brand of rose tinted spectacles and I am no different to any of you. Our preferences make the music world go round and long may that continue. Besides, this kind of debate is half the fun of being a ‘head’.
When all’s said and done, opinion is what it’s all about. One man’s Rakim is another man’s Vanilla Ice but it doesn’t have to be absolute. The greatest ever argument will never go away and will never be unanimous. Yet there are people out there who actually treat it as such and let that stop them taking in what all the contenders (and those further down the ladder) have to offer. Why deny yourself such a rich tapestry of music. Being critical of the hysteria surrounding 4:44 doesn’t stop me appreciating how good it is.
Anyone with any regard for Hip Hop’s history knows that Jay-Z is one of the best ever. That is not in doubt. But please, let’s retain some semblance of reality when critiquing his or anyone else’s music. I like to think I am someone who readily gives credit where it’s due. 4:44 is definitely worthy of some of the hype, just not all of it.