Much of the reaction to Jay-Z’s thirteenth album, 4:44, from much of the press is that Jay – finally – has matured and is allowing himself to be shown through his music.
Perhaps the biggest knock on Jay has often been that his image of the cool, calculated businessman prevented the audience from seeing into his mind and soul – until now. Many of the thinkpieces dedicated to what some want to believe is the male equivalent of Beyoncé‘s Lemonade is that twenty-one years after his first album, at the age of forty-seven, looking back on a career built on nothing but arrogant boasts and aspirational lyrics, Jay-Z is finally being open and honest:
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.
Only that’s not true. These are not new areas of exploration for Jigga.
While he rocketed to fame through seemingly-shallow singles like “Money Ain’t a Thang,” “Big Pimpin’,” “I Just Wanna Luv Ya,” “Change Clothes,” and others, Jay-Z’s career is full of songs that find him battling internal demons and talking to himself. He’s always wrestled with his own actions and deeds, how they have affected both he and those around him, and what they will bring on him in a karmic sense.
The final song on his first album is titled “Regrets” while the final song on his second album, “You Must Love Me,” begins with the line, “Since my date of birth, brought you nothing but hurt,” and goes on to detail how he stole money from his mother’s purse and shot his brother among other sins.
The Dynasty: Roc La Familia was more of a group album than a solo effort, but even so there are three songs in which Jay turns himself inside out and lays his soul bare on record, from describing a 1994 miscarriage on “This Can’t Be Life” – “It gets worse, baby momma water burst/Baby came out stillborn, still I gotta move on/Though my heart still torn, life gone from her womb/Don’t worry, if it was meant to be, it’ll be soon” – to how he ruined a relationship on “Soon You’ll Understand” – “You deserve better, this is ugly; Gina, please don’t love me/There’s better guys out there other than me” – to his father leaving Jay and his family on “Where Have You Been” – “You said that you was comin’ through/I would stay in the hallway (waitin’)/Always playin’ the bench (waitin’)/And that day came and went/Fuck You! very much, you showed me the worst kind of pain/But I’m stronger and trust me, I will never hurt again/Will never ask mommy ‘Why daddy don’t love me?/Why is we so poor?, why is life so ugly?'”
Upon its release in 2001, his classic The Blueprint was, up until that time, considered his most personal work to date with “Song Cry” once again exploring his failure at relationships – “I can understand why you want a divorce now/Though I can’t let you know it, pride won’t let me show it/Pretend to be heroic, that’s just one to grow with/But deep inside a n—a so sick”; “They say you can’t turn a bad girl good/But once a good girl’s gone bad, she’s gone forever/I’ll mourn forever/Shit, I’ve got to live with the fact I did you wrong forever” – and the title track, which closes the album, serves as a stream-of-consciousness confessional including the line, “Momma raised me, Pop I miss you/God help me, forgive him, I got some issues.”
He would return to the subject of his father again two years later on “Moment of Clarity” from The Black Album: “Pop died, didn’t cry, didn’t know him that well/Between him doing heroin and me doing crack sales”; “So, Pop, I forgive you for all the shit that I lived through”; “I’m just glad we got to see each other/Talk and re-meet each other/Save a place in Heaven ’til the next time we meet forever.”
On “Glory,” a song that was never housed on an album but released to celebrate the birth of his daughter in 2012, he once again touches on miscarriage (possibly one with Beyoncé and thus different from the one mentioned on “This Can’t Be Life”) – “False alarms and false starts/All made better by the sound of your heart/All the pain of the last time/I prayed so hard it was the last time” – as well as the failures of his own father and his desire to break the cycle – “Your Grandpop died of n—a failure/Then he died of liver failure/Deep down he was a good man/Goddamn, I can’t deliver failure.”
Six years before Blue Ivy’s birth, Jay was already preparing for karma to come for him and his child on “Beach Chair” off Kingdom Come – “See I got demons in my past, so I got daughters on the way/If the prophecy’s correct, then the child should have to pay/For the sins of the father, so I barter my tomorrows against my yesterdays/In hopes that she’ll be okay.” That album also included “Lost One,” which touched on the dissolution of his musical partnership – “I ain’t a bitch, but I gotta divorce them/Hov had to get the shallow shit up off him” – another failed relationship – “But she loves her work more than she does me” – and the death of his nephew in a car crash – “My nephew died in the car I bought/So I’m under the belief it’s partly my fault/Close my eyes and squeeze, try to block that thought/Place any burden on me, but please, not that, Lord.”
Rap battles aren’t known for displaying much in the way of feelings aside from arrogance or anger, but when taken in full, Jay-Z’s epic duel with Nas shows an artist wrestling with a range of emotions that would be natural for anyone. There was ambition – “You n—as gon’ learn to respect the king” – followed first by desperate retaliation – “I came in your Bentley backseat, skeeted in your Jeep/Left condoms on your baby seat” – then a somber apology, and finally resignation. The man who repeatedly proclaimed “I will not lose!” admitted defeat to Nas twice on record, once on the title track to The Blueprint2 – “But I will not lose, for even in defeat/There’s a valuable lesson learned, so it evens up for me” – and on his “Brooklyn High” freestyle diss to Jim Jones – “The Joneses can’t keep up/Maybe my n—a Nas, but I got stronger after ‘Ether.'”
The list goes on.
In his music, Jay-Z has addressed a myriad of topics, from yearning to be a successful musician to prove others – including his family – wrong (“So Ambitious”); escaping the cycle of the inner city life to become a rich black man in America (“Murder to Excellence”); his inability to escape the drug dealer’s mentality (“Allure”); responding to criticism outside of music (“Open Letter”); to offering advice as a positive male figure in the life of his nephews (“Anything”). Even his songs that aren’t explicitly focused on plumbing the depths of the human soul contain elements that gave a window in Jay’s tortured soul (“Can I Live”; “A Week Ago”; “Dope Man”).
So while 4:44 is a great album and finds Jay confessing in the recording booth, let’s not forget that he’s been doing this all along.
Christopher Pierznik’s nine books, including the brand new Hip-Hop Scholar, are available in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.