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4:44, Jay-Z, and the luxury of living long enough to own your mistakes

On Jay-Z, Tamir Rice, and growing old.

Jay-Z attends a pre-Grammys brunch in Los Angeles, California. 
Photo by Ari Perilstein via Getty Images

The police thought Tamir Rice looked older than 12 years of age. This was the excuse — one of many — for a police officer firing his gun at Rice mere seconds after exiting his car. As the case unfolded, the fatal gap between Rice’s perceived and actual age was what continued to echo back to me.

Growing up, for those who are afforded the chance, is a fluid and always-functioning thing. Those who are not afforded the chance serve as a reminder to those of us still living: It is one thing to look grown, another to act grown. And — depending on how you move through the world — perhaps none of this holds any weight when the measure of how grown you look can dig you a grave, and how grown you act or refuse to act can dig a slow grave for others.

4:44, it seems, is the album of Jay-Z’s growing up — not expanding in size or scope, or taking on a new meaning in the canon, but wrestling with the emotional reckoning that comes with age, and how it never truly stops, even when you have sped past 40 and the half-century mark lies ahead, tapping its watch and waiting for you to come inside. With this growth comes a type of vulnerability, or at least the performance of it, and for Jay-Z, that means coming clean about how sad he is about all he’s done, and being celebrated for it — and that is perhaps the biggest luxury afforded to a star whose life has no shortage of luxuries.

No size or age dictates the rate at which we learn to turn away from our old mistakes, and clean ourselves up before making new ones. And so when I think about the platinum-plated response to the 47-year-old Jay Z’s 4:44, I also think about the 12-year-old Rice — how he was never afforded the mistakes that come with growing up, and the accolades that come with surviving them.

On 4:44 Jay-Z is hungry again, but for different reasons

The punchline of every Jay-Z joke these days is that he’s old. It’s there, underneath the video of him squinting into Usher’s phone, not understanding Snapchat. It’s there in any number of photos of him looking exhausted and overwhelmed in public. Jay-Z has become more of a visual representation of old and comfortable wealth than anything else.

His last album before this one, 2013’s tedious and largely inaccessible Magna Carta Holy Grail, was distant and confused. It played out like a long commercial, but for no product except its own immense and boring opulence. Gone was the hustler-made-good narrative that made Jay-Z interesting even as late as 2007’s American Gangster. This was it. The hustler, it seems, made too good to even regale his audience with stories that we’d all understand as lies.

On 4:44 Jay-Z is hungry again, a rapper not as interested in competition as he is in widening his capacity to be both logical and emotionally aware — though both of these things come with a healthy dose of bitterness and frustration aimed at both friends and rivals. He is still praying to the God of endless wealth, but with an eye toward less disposable outcomes.

In a way, this growth makes sense. When Magna Carta Holy Grail was released, Jay-Z was still less than two years into being a father. The album’s frantic, detached nature sounded like someone trying to find themselves under the weight of redefinition. Now, in 2017, he’s seasoned: Blue Ivy is 5 years old, and Jay-Z and Beyoncé just had twins. His idea of what a legacy does (and doesn’t) rest on has shifted.

“A man that don’t take care his family can’t be rich,” he raps on the third verse of 4:44’s “Family Feud,” which features Beyoncé. On the same song, two verses earlier, he queries: “You’d rather be old rich me or new you?” This is Jay-Z, newer, older, wiser, but still rattled with contradictions about which cup of wealth he’d rather drink from.

There is, indeed, a lot to unravel about the album’s artistry, most notably the album’s producer, No I.D., acting as the album’s engine, rolling out a soundscape of reworked samples from decades past. The proper execution of a sample is a producer touching their hands to the forehead of a legend and bringing them to life inside of a space, even if they aren’t dead, and Jay-Z has done some of his best rapping when he isn’t the only legend in the room.

On 4:44, Jay Z has the occasional issue keeping up with No I.D.’s frantic and delightfully claustrophobic beats, but he holds his own for the most part. On “Smile,” a surprisingly twisted sample of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” shines in through the cracks of percussion. “Moonlight” reworks the Fugees song “Fugee-La” while Jay-Z laments “Y’all niggas still signin’ deals? Still? / After all they done stole, for real? / After what they done to our Lauryn Hill?”

Jay-Z has arguably done his best work around thoughtful sampling like this, like on 2001’s Blueprint, which was helmed, largely, by a young Kanye West. In that sense, No I.D. is the perfect vehicle for this project, and his work and inclusion on the album seem symbolic: Jay-Z is reaching back to the producer who mentored Kanye West, finding a revival inside the core of a relationship that was once productive but seems all but faded. Like the album’s narrative, the choice in producer can be read as a statement: a return to roots, looking to salvage something fresh from something crumbled.

4:44’s brilliant, well-crafted backbone is the glaring lighthouse illuminating Jay-Z’s striving toward growth and continued relevance — but it’s nothing compared to what hums underneath it.

4:44 documents a man’s vulnerability, and the contradictions therein

Jay-Z and Beyoncé Win McNamee via Getty

Jay-Z is sorry and reflective throughout much of 4:44 — which sounds new, but isn’t entirely: On songs like “You Must Love Me” from 1997’s In My Lifetime Vol. 1, he laments the decisions he’s made and those he’s hurt. But songs like that felt brief and almost contractual, the gentle introspective song a rapper tacks onto an album steeped in tales of a hustler’s ambition. 4:44, in contrast, is sustained, nuanced vulnerability from an artist who, since returning from his brief retirement, has felt sometimes robotic, either avatar or walking advertisement.

I find comparisons to 4:44 and Beyoncé’s landmark Lemonade to be boring and uninspiring. However, the very public discussion about Lemonade’s brilliance and story put Jay-Z in a position where any album as shallow as his recent efforts just wouldn’t cut it. The work here doesn’t exist as a response to Lemonade, nor does it need to be pitted against Lemonade; but without the challenge of one album, the other doesn’t exist.

I think, then, about how the vulnerability of men is rewarded while the vulnerability of women — especially marginalized women — exists on a spectrum of “expected” to “outright punished.” I think about how I look at myself and how I, too, want to be vulnerable in the hopes that younger men and boys around me might also aspire to vulnerability. I do this knowing that I exist in a body where a task that should be common becomes cause for celebration, and even though I learned the roadmap to vulnerability (which I follow and stray from often) at the feet of others, mostly women.

I don’t want to dismiss Jay-Z’s many revelations. On 4:44, he oscillates between emotional openness and overwrought boasting that he attempts to have double as career and financial advice for younger rappers. The title track is lucid, Jay-Z the confessional poet. He opens with a line about how it took his daughter to be born for him to see through a woman’s eyes.

And isn’t that the way. The wreckage we crawl from unscathed, wondering what would our mothers think and knowing the answer, but continuing to create more wreckage regardless, until we become fathers of daughters — a trail of fully grown people needing to heal from whatever we placed on them while we were figuring out how to grow up.

4:44 imagines a world in which a man perceived as dangerous can make mistakes and live to correct them

Jay-Z is 47 years old, which is old in rap years, unquestionably, but not so old that he shouldn’t be allowed his moment of introspection and apology. I am trying — as a man who reflects and apologizes and will almost certainly continue to do so — to come to terms with this: celebrating an album that is his best in nearly a decade, and also considering the pain that made it possible.

It isn’t my work to forgive Jay-Z, and, truthfully, I have little stock in Jay-Z improving as a person. I am glad to hear an album in which he carved out a little space in his idolatry of wealth to also honor his mother, his wife, and his children. I am glad to hear him raw, vulnerable, and wrestling with uncomfortable truths and accountability, in the hopes that there are more men — at any age — inspired to do the same. But I can’t celebrate in the name of these things without thinking of how we are often celebrated for these things without also lifting up the people we’ve hurt on the never-ending journey to being slightly better than we once were.

Just five days before 4:44 dropped, Tamir Rice would have turned 15. He might have still been big for his age, or still have been imagined older than he actually was, as black children often are. Tamir Rice would have possibly been shot and killed even if the police officers knew he was 12, or he might have lived and listened to 4:44 in headphones while walking through the streets of Cleveland and imagining a world in which he could grow into a better version of the manhood that a world had ascribed to him — one where he could make mistakes and live to correct them and live to be better and live as free as possible while still seen as dangerous, at any size.

I don’t know what type of man Rice could have become, but when I think of 4:44, and the work it might be doing beyond anything musical, I think of the young men who might listen to it first as a cautionary tale: the album where the iconic hustler archetype turns back once more to deliver wise words before fading to black for good. I think of those it might inspire to consider vulnerability and openness in service of themselves and those they love first, and not whatever rewards are waiting at the end of the rainbow.

This is all a heavy charge to lay on a rap album, I know. But times are urgent when you are born a threat, always big enough to be dangerous to someone.