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Jay-Z’s ‘4:44’: A Track-by-Track Guide

Notes on samples, guests, notable lines and an apology to Beyoncé from the veteran MC

Veteran MC Jay-Z dropped his 13th album last night via Tidal, the streaming service he owns. On the album, executive produced by No I.D., Jay-Z takes a pro-black stance, addresses intergenerational conflicts in hip-hop and talks about marital troubles after many had interpreted lines for his wife Beyoncé’s 2016 album Lemonade as alluding to infidelity. Here’s a track-by-track breakdown of 4:44.

1. “Kill Jay Z”
Ahead of the release of 4:44, hyphen fans everywhere celebrated the return of “Jay-Z,” the stylisation that Sean Carter used from roughly 1997 until 2013, when he dropped the punctuation to become simply “Jay Z.” The fact that the first new song by the renewed Jay-Z is titled “Kill Jay Z,” with no hyphen, is either a typographical error or pointed subtext. Is he killing off the version of himself from the last four years, the one that inspired the songs of betrayal on Beyonce’s Lemonade? “It’s really about the ego,” Jay said in an iHeart Radio interview that accompanied the premiere of the album. “It’s about killing off the ego, so we can have this conversation in a place of vulnerability and honesty.”

“Kill Jay Z” samples the Alan Parson Project’s 1977 soft-rock hit “Don’t Let It Show,” with Dave Townsend’s skipping, stuttering voice repeating the words “They say I’m to blame” throughout the track. In one long, uninterrupted verse, Jay-Z zeroes in on several of the most significant conflicts in his life. He mentions the childhood incident in which he shot his own brother, memorialised in the 1997 track “You Must Love Me” and the 1999 stabbing of producer Lance “Un” Rivera that became his biggest scrape with the law as a celebrity.

But there are two particular headline-grabbing incidents that get the most intriguing references on “Kill Jay Z.” “You dropped outta school, you lost your principles,” he says as he begins subliminally, but sharply, addressing Kanye “The College Dropout” West, who called out Jay during a concert last November. “You gave him 20 million without thinkin’,” Jay says, supposedly confirming a rumor that he lent West a large sum of money a few years ago. “He gave you 20 minutes on stage, fuck was he thinkin’?”

Later, Jay brings up the 2014 Met Gala incident, when Beyoncé’s sister Solange got physical with him in an elevator, an altercation that was caught on security camera. It was the first signal to the world that not all was well in the Carter family. “You egged Solange on, knowing all along, all you had to say was you was wrong,” he castigates himself. Thinking back to the time he almost lost Beyoncé, Jay makes allusions to the men that famously fumbled relationships with Halle Berry (“You almost went Eric Benet”) and Ciara (“In the Future, other niggas playin’ football with your son”).

2. “The Story of O.J.”
Jay-Z and executive producer No. I.D. establish 4:44’s sonic foundations on its second track. This is the first of many beats that build around a straightforward, unfussy loop, nodding to the early part of Jay-Z’s career when his work was a bastion of boom-bap. On “The Story of O.J.,” a bass thunks out a few ripe notes, and a flighty piano tumbles after.

Snippets of Nina Simone’s voice from “Four Women” rub against Jay-Z’s conversational raps. In that song, from 1966, Simone famously narrates the tales of four different black women, all of whom are battling the effects of entrenched racism in American society. Jay-Z uses a similar conceit for his jumping-off point: “Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga,” he raps. Jay-Z adds an assertion of unity across these factions – “still nigga.” He also appears to dispute O.J. Simpson’s famous statement about being able to escape the color of his skin. “O.J. like, ‘I’m not black, I’m O.J.,'” Jay-Z notes. He responds with a noncommittal verbal shrug: “OK.”

In the second half of the song, Jay-Z focuses on amassing resources as a potential way out of a deeply rooted cycle of violent marginalisation. “Financial freedom our only hope,” he raps, “Fuck living rich and dying broke.” In the iHeartRadio interview, Jay-Z described “The Story of O.J.” as “a song about we as a culture having a plan [for] how we’re gonna push this forward.”

A black-and-white animated video for “The Story of O.J.” also surfaced on Tidal on Thursday night. Jay-Z directed the clip along with Mark Romanek, the man behind 2004’s “99 Problems” video and feature films like Never Let Me Go. The clip centers on a character named “Jaybo,” a tweak on the “Sambo” character from the children’s book The Story of Little Black Sambo, a reference that’s long-running shorthand for racist portrayals of African-Americans in the media. The character inhabits a number of personas based on the song’s lyrics: a slave picking cotton in the fields, a patient in therapy and, in a coy reference to the recent rumoured birth of Jay-Z’s twins, a man holding a baby in each arm.

This is not the first time Jay-Z has rapped over a Simone sample: Vocals from the iconic singer formed the basis for the Watch the Throne track “New Day.” And Jay-Z uses Simone as a muse once more on 4:44’s fourth track, “Caught Their Eyes.” Just to drive home her importance, he also includes Simone’s 1964 live recording of “Wild Is the Wind” in a new Tidal playlist titled “4:44 Inspired By.”

3. “Smile” feat. Gloria Carter
The opening notes of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” which No I.D. subsequently chops, loops and lays over a digital rhythm, set a tone of familial warmth as Jay-Z reminisces about his mother. “Mama had four kids, she’s a lesbian/Had to pretend so long she’s a thespian,” he reveals. “Cried tears of joy when she fell in love/Doesn’t matter to me if it’s a him or her.”

Each verse shows how he attempts to turn pain to triumph in his life. Observations like being “that boy/Anita Baker’s ‘You Bring Me Joy’ slapping out of the toy” sound celebratory instead of arrogant. Then he reminds us that, yes, he owns the music service on which this album premiered. “Respect Jimmy Iovine,” he says in regards to his Beats 1 competitor. “But he gotta respect the Elohim/It’s a whole different regime.” More than just braggadocio, it’s a call for his fans to support black entrepreneurship – the same ethos that led Prince to give exclusive streaming rights to Tidal before he passed away.

Finally, Jay-Z’s raps give way to a poem recited by his mother. She says, “Living in the shadow/Can you imagine what kind of life it is to live?”

During the iHeart Radio interview, Jay-Z discussed “Smile.” “There are gonna be bad times, and those bad times can do two things: They can get you in a place where you’re stuck in a rut, or it can make your future that much better because you’ve experienced these things,” he said.

4. “Caught Their Eyes” feat. Frank Ocean
Although No I.D. produced every song on 4:44, “Caught Their Eyes” is one of five tracks with a “co-produced by Jay-Z” credit. Historically this has meant that Jay suggested a sample to a beatmaker, as when he brought 9th Wonder the R. Kelly loop used on 2003’s “Threat.” The source material that Jay presumably suggested for “Caught Their Eyes” is the second Nina Simone sample of the album: her 1978 cover of Randy Newman’s “Baltimore” (previously sampled by the Game and countless Baltimore MCs like Mullyman and Jade Fox). “Their eyes,” sings Simone, with Frank Ocean finishing her sentence with “… still stinging with tears”

In the final year of Prince’s life, he befriended Jay-Z, publicly praising Tidal as an artist-friendly company and giving the site exclusive streaming rights for his catalog. Since Prince’s death last year, however, lawyers and family members have descended upon the rock legend’s estate, bringing Prince’s albums to other streaming services. Jay lashes out at one of Prince’s former attorneys, Londell McMillan, by name on “Caught Their Eyes,” sneering, “You greedy bastards sold tickets to walk through his house/I’m surprised you ain’t auction off the casket.”

5. “4:44”
The title track to Jay-Z’s new LP is a remarkable outburst of apology and self-abasement. After Beyoncé appeared to discuss the rapper’s infidelity on Lemonade last year, there was curiosity over whether he would eventually air his side of the story. Sure enough, some of his most explicit references to marital trouble come on “4:44.”

Jay-Z is startlingly contrite from his very first line here, where he seems to admit his disloyalty: “I apologise/Often womanised/Took for my child to be born to see through a woman’s eyes.” He continues in this vein for almost the entire song, which plays as a lengthy list of regrets: The phrase “I apologise” appears no less than seven times. Some lines: “You mature faster than me, I wasn’t ready”; “Like the men before me, I cut off my nose to spite my face”; the blunt admission, “I suck at love”; and “It took too long for this song/I don’t deserve you.”

Speaking with iHeartRadio, Jay-Z explained the origins of 4:44’s title, if not the fraught emotions at its core. “I woke up, literally, at 4:44 in the morning, 4:44 a.m., to write this song,” he recalled. “So it became the title of the album and everything. It’s the title track because it’s such a powerful song, and I just believe one of the best songs I’ve ever written.”

In the same manner as “The Story of O.J.,” No I.D. provides Jay-Z with a basic soul loop on “4:44” and lets it ride. In this case, the producer pulls from a new-retro cut, Hannah Williams and the Affirmations’ “Late Nights and Heartbreak,” which is itself a tale of romantic conflict and adultery. (The track is barely known; it came out in 2016 and has accumulated just 7,500 plays on Spotify as of yesterday.) Additional vocals come courtesy of the gospel singer Kim Burrell, who adds a textured wail and a jolt of energy to the track.

6. “Family Feud”
When Jay-Z spoke with iHeart Radio he gave a relatively pithy explanation for “Family Feud.” “Family Feud is about separation within the culture. Like, new rappers fighting with old rappers, saying all these things,” he said. That answer is echoed in first verse lines like, “All this old talk left me confused/You rather be ‘old rich me’ or ‘new you’/And old niggas, y’all stop acting brand new/Like 2Pac ain’t have a nose ring, too.”

But the lines that have elicited the most chatter so far seem to confirm Beyoncé’s accusations of cheating with “Becky” on her 2016 masterwork Lemonade. He uses Michael Corleone’s spiritual decline in The Godfather Part II as a metaphor for his own benign neglect, and observes that he didn’t have the right “tools” because he lacked for positive male role models during his childhood. Then Jay takes aim at Al Sharpton’s recent selfies – an observation that shows how digital music allows artists to respond to incidents in near-record time. “How is him or Bill Cosby ‘sposed to help me?” he asks. So “Family Feud” is not only about rap’s ongoing culture and generational wars, but also about tensions in the black community and at home.

No I.D. flips a vocal sample from “Ha Ya” by gospel legends the Clark Sisters and then Beyoncé interpolates the sample in real time. Her entrance arrives when Jay-Z raps, “What’s better than one billionaire? Two/Especially if they from the same hue as you.”

7. “Bam” feat. Damian Marley
4:44 was not preceded by a single, and the album’s advance buzz correctly surmised that this very personal album would not be particularly radio-friendly. But the reggae-tinged “Bam” has emerged as an early fan favourite, a celebratory track where Jay shouts “Hov!” in a cadence reminiscent of The Black Album’s perennial concert staple “Public Service Announcement.”

“Bam” samples Sister Nancy’s 1982 dancehall classic “Bam Bam,” which Kanye West also drew from last year for his single “Famous.” West’s mentor No I.D. takes a much different approach to the sample, however, fleshing it out with four-piece horn section and guitar and keys by his Cocaine 80s collaborator Steve Wyreman.

Jay-Z has quoted his late friend the Notorious B.I.G. in so many songs that he even has lyrics defending his practice of quoting Biggie lyrics. But when he says “Y’all be talkin’ crazy under them IG pictures, so when you get to hell tell ’em Blanco sent you,” he’s not just referencing a Big’s line from “Niggas Bleed.” He may also be referencing Instagram user tellemblancosentya, who posts vintage photos of a young Jay-Z and other Nineties rappers.

8. “Moonlight”
Jay-Z takes aim at unnamed competitors in “Moonlight,” a track filled with low-key boasts and taunts. Jay-Z skewers the fake tough guys over and over: “Look, I know killers – you no killer”; “I don’t post no threats on the Internet/I just pose a threat”; “Please don’t talk about guns that you ain’t never gon’ use.” The quality of Jay-Z’s rivals’ music is less of a concern to him, but he does get in one good dig: “Stop walkin’ ’round like y’all made Thriller.” He looses these arrows in a bored tone, as if he can barely maintain an interest in the artists who aggravate him.

No I.D.’s “Moonlight” beat is somewhat of an outlier on 4:44: Instead of building an instrumental around classic soul, gospel or reggae (or a modern approximation of it), the producer plays around with the Fugees’ 1995 single “Fu-Gee-La.” No I.D. infuses the track with viscous sheets of low-end, muddying and thickening the festive melody that added a jaunty flair to the original track. Fusing medium and message, Jay-Z also alludes to former Fugees’ member Lauryn Hill in his lyrics: “Y’all niggas still signin’ deals?/After all they done stole, for real?/After what they done to our Lauryn Hill?”

The song’s title and chorus refers to the Oscars’ Best Picture mix-up last year: “We stuck in La La Land/Even if we win, we gonna lose.” “It’s really a commentary on the culture and where we’re going,” Jay-Z told iHeartRadio.

9. “Marcy Me”
This track features some of No I.D.’s most complex 4:44 production. He speeds up, loops and filters a vocal-centered segment from “Todo O Mundo E Ninguém,” a hallucinatory 1970 ballad by Portugese rock band Quarteto 1111. Then No I.D. recruits Steve Wyreman from his band Cocaine 80s and Nate Mercereau to play alongside the sample. The result mixes a hazy, time-weathered nostalgic feel with the propulsive clarity of live instrumentation.

Meanwhile, Jay-Z recalls his origins in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn’s Marcy Houses. There are the requisite “cooking crack in the kitchen” lines, yet he also recites a verse from Hamlet to illustrate his greater creative ambitions. His timeline of his hustler days may be a bit off – “when Pam was on Martin” in the early Nineties, Jay had already made a splash on mentor the Jaz’s excellent 1990 single “The Originators” – though that doesn’t mean he wasn’t in the streets, too. He also gives a shout-out to all the “murderers turned murals” who didn’t make it out of the hood.

The track closes with a vocal from The-Dream, who translates Jay-Z’s memories into harmony. “Marcy Marcy me/Just the way I am/Always gonna be,” he sings, alluding to Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).”

10. “Legacy”
Jay-Z has been featuring his daughter Blue Ivy in his songs since her earliest days: He celebrated her birth with her vocal cameo on the 2012 track “Glory.” Blue Ivy shows up again at the top of 4:44’s closing track, asking, “Daddy, what’s a will?” Over a silky Donny Hathaway vocal sample, Jay speaks directly to Blue, laying out his plan for passing wealth on to future generations of Carters: “My stake in RocNation should go to you/Leave a piece for your siblings to give to their children, too.” It’s a prosperity that he hopes impacts not just his family but black America as a whole: He urges Blue and the twins to “fund ideas from people who look like we,” ending 4:44 on a utopian note. 

Jay-Z apologises to Beyoncé for his past infidelities and fallacies as a husband in the rapper’s brutally honest new song “4:44.” Watch here.