You’re arguably the most successful rapper of all time. You’re married to one of the most successful singers of all time. You have three beautiful children. You own a music streaming service. Your bank account is closing in upon a big B-as-in-Billion balance.
Life is good, right?
But that doesn’t keep you from allegedly having an affair. Or from having your semi-famous sister-in-law angrily thrash you in an elevator while security cameras roll. Or keep your wife from releasing a solo album broadcasting your alleged indiscretions.
So if you’re the most famous rapper in the world, what do you do now? If you’re smart, you’ll apologize to your wife about how destructive your choices have been. You’ll admit just how much they jeopardize the your idyllic existence together.
That’s exactly what Jay Z does on his 13th studio album, 4:44.
“Kill Jay Z” sounds as if it’s going to be violent. But the killing here is Jay Z’s recognition of what parts of his personality he needs to purge to keep his family together. “But you gotta do better, boy, you owe it to Blue [Ivy, his and Beyoncé’s daughter].” He then talks about transcending the wounds of his fatherlessness, followed by lines saluting emotional vulnerability: “Cry, Jay Z, we know the pain is real/But you can’t heal what you never reveal.” He also talks about his responsibility to fans (“You know you owe the truth to all the youth/That fell in love with Jay Z”). He regrets peddling drugs to close associates. And he admits his values in those years undermined his integrity (“You walkin’ around like you invincible/You dropped outta school, you lost your principles”). Near the song’s end, the rap icon also ponders the possibility of another man (identified with a racial slur) raising his son if Beyoncé were to abandon him because of his failings: “In the future, other n-ggas playin’ football with you son/You would’ve lost it.”
“Legacy” calls out a sexually abusive minister (Jay Z’s grandfather, lyrics suggest) who damaged his grandson’s view of Christianity: “You see, my father, son of a preacher man/Whose daughter couldn’t escape the reach of the preacher’s hand/I hated religion ’cause here was this Christian/he was preachin’ Sundays, versus how he was livin’ Monday/Someday, I forgive him.”
“4:44” owns up to infidelity. “Look, I apologize, often womanize.” Then Jay Z adds, “Took for my child to be born/See through a woman’s eyes.” He says his wife “mature[d] faster than me” after they got married, but that “I wasn’t ready” to give up playing the field. One lyric seems to imply that the stress of his cheating led to Beyoncé having multiple miscarriages: “I’ve seen the innocence leave your eyes/I still mourn this death, I apologize for all the stillborns/’Cause I wasn’t present, your body wouldn’t accept it.”
And he’s not done yet: “I apologize to all the woman whom I/Toyed with you emotions because I was emotionless/I apologize ’cause at your best you are love/And because I fall short of what I say I’m all about.” Later in that song, Jay Z raps, “I never wanted another woman to know/Something about me that you didn’t know.” He worries about what his children would think of his choices (“And if my children knew, I don’t even know what I would do/If they ain’t look at me the same/I would prob’ly die with all the shame”). As the song ends, he says, “My heart breaks for the day I had to explain my mistakes.”
“Family Feuds” says, “Nobody wins when the family feuds/ … A man that don’t take care of his family can’t be rich.” We also hear, “Let me alone, Becky,” a nod to the name Beyoncé dropped on her album to identify the person Jay Z allegedly cheated with.
“Caught Their Eyes” says, “Your eyes speak the truth when everything else lies.” That song also unpacks the dysfunction of dangerously violent neighborhoods where killers show up at the funerals of those they’ve murdered and pretend to be remorseful about it.
“Smile” finds lessons in suffering: “Bad times turn to good memories, smile/ … A loss ain’t a loss, it’s a lesson/Appreciate the pain, it’s a blessin.'” That song also offers commentary on black poverty and racial injustice, as well as voicing Jay Z’s love for his mother, Gloria Carter. However, that affirmation is a prelude …
… to a spoken-word segment from Gloria about coming out as a lesbian. She equates being openly homosexual with freedom: “Living two lives, happy, but not free/ … the world is changing and they say it’s time to be free.” Elsewhere in the song, Jay Z says of her, “Mama had four kids, but she’s a lesbian/Had to pretend so long that she’s a thespian.” That track also includes a crude boast about his own manhood, “Oh yeah, I was born with a pair.”
Jay Z doesn’t seem to be embracing drug use any more. That said, we still hear passing references to substances including marijuana, crack cocaine, heroin and codeine as well as shout-outs to various brands of alcohol. A verse reflecting on the past includes the lines, “I was movin’ them kilos, help you move your peoples/Sometimes you need your ego, gotta remind these fools who they effin’ with.”
We hear many, many f-words, s-words and uses of “n-gga,” vulgarities that pepper nearly every song.
Some have heard a line about Jewish preservation of wealth as an anti-Semitic slur: “You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America? This is how they did it.” “Caught in Their Eyes” accuses relatives squabbling over Prince’s estate of being a group of “greedy b–tards.”
“Family Feud” finds Jay Z rapping, “I told my wife the spiritual s— really work,” but it’s unclear exactly what he’s referencing. In “Legacy,” lyrics flirt with the idea that all spiritual traditions ultimately lead to the same place: “Our division led to multiple religions/I studied Muslim, Buddhist, and Christians/And I was runnin’ from Him, He was givin’ me wisdom/See how the universe works?”
Jay Z’s mea culpa goes places rappers rarely go: Confessing guilt and shame for choices he’s made. Lyrics acknowledge mistakes as well as voice Jay Z’s realization of how much his selfishness has jeopardized his marriage and family. To that I say, bravo.
Jay Z’s exploration of racism’s pernicious effects also includes some surprising observations. And though we still hear him brag about bling, more often than not, Jay Z suggests that wealth should be used to bless younger generations and the broader community. We’ve often blasted the rap genre for its toxic, narcissistic blend of hedonism and materialism in the past. But Jay Z—again much to his credit—seems to be challenging that paradigm. Additionally, he regrets having sold drugs, something he suggests likely harmed those around him instead of helping them.
Alas, harsh profanity and racial slurs still permeate Jay Z’s lyrics. And some songs that reflect on Jay Z’s checkered past—namely drugs and the hint of violence—don’t critique that lifestyle as much as they simply depict it as the reality that the man once known as Shawn Carter grew up in. We also hear a clear equivocation between homosexual expression and personal freedom.
4:44 represents the biggest step forward—from a maturity perspective—in Jay Z’s long career. That step may not be big enough, however, to offset the clear, significant problems still present in the lyrics of rap’s most famous rapper.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.