"My life ain't rosy, but I roll with it." Dating back to that line from 1996's "Dead Presidents," the life and times of Shawn "JAY-Z" Carter has always been one of rap's most interesting pen-less narratives.
They say, to say less is to say more. That message is as synonymous to JAY-Z's signature life story told through raps as is the hyphen in his name. So on his latest album, 4:44, the chapters in the book of Hov get unpacked once again, only this time it finds the author's scriptures hitting closer to home. "I woke up, literally, at 4:44 in the morning to write this song," he explains of the album centerpiece "4:44" in an exclusive breakdown with iHeartRadio. While on another, "Smile," he discloses personal details about his mother, Gloria Carter. "My story's too wide to fit inside the line," he mentions on the same song.
So never one to shy away from the hits and misses in his own personal story, Hov treats No I.D.'s stark and complex production like his own fidget spinner — twirling around real life tales of black empowerment, marital bumps, and intergenerational complexities.
For 10 songs, Jigga gifts listeners with his most introspective and vulnerable yet. With so much to learn and put into perspective, we identified four things about Hov that immediately jump out on first listen.
Disappointment in Prince's estate
Prince's contention with this streaming era has been well documented. In fact, in a 2010 interview with The Mirror, he expressed the disagreement, stating, "I don't see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else... They won't pay me an advance for it and then they get angry when they can't get it." Five years later, he would yank his entire catalog from every streaming service expect Tidal. "Jay Z spent $100 million of his own money to build his own service. We have to show support for artists who are trying to own things for themselves," he would note.
"Tidal is a new company, it's brand new. They're just getting their footing, and I think when there's a company like that, or the OWN network — situations where we finally get into a position to run things — we all should help." Last year, Prince died and months later, his estate sued Roc Nation over Tidal "exploiting many copyrighted Prince works" and claimed the service was never granted exclusive streaming rights. In February, the legend's entire catalog returned to Spotify and other digital platforms.
On verse two of "Caught Their Eyes," Jay calls out the handler of Prince's estate for that decision to have the singer's music available to the same services he once slammed. "I sat down with Prince, eye to eye / He told me his wishes before he died," he raps. "Now, Londell McMillan, he must be color blind / They only see green from them eyes." Despite that sit down with Prince and seeking to protect Prince's wishes, Jay expresses his disappointment with Prince's estate over the money-hungry agenda.
At this moment, Prince's catalog is available on all platforms. Earlier this month, a 25-year anniversary edition of Purple Rain hit retailers and streaming services. Between the streams, the album releases and the ongoing public tours taking place inside Prince's Paisley Park — Jay's frustration is made clear. "They guy had 'Slave' on his face / This guy had 'Slave' on his face / You think he wanted the masters with his masters? / You greedy bastards sold tickets to walk through his house / I'm surprised you ain't auction off the casket..."
On how he asked Beyoncé to be his girl: "Said, 'Don't embarrass me' instead of be mine"
Aside from lamenting on the wounds that almost costed him his marriage, Jay's open letter and apology to Beyoncé, otherwise known as "4:44," also finds him revisiting how the two went steady. "We talked for hours when you were on tour... said, 'don't embarrass me' instead of be mine," he confessed. "That was my proposal for us to go steady." For more on the multi-layers of "4:44," head here.
Smiles in support in of his mother, Gloria Carter
As one of many surprising confessions on the album: Jay reveals the relationship status of his mother, Gloria Carter. "Mama had four kids, but she's a lesbian / Had to pretend, so long that she's a thespian," he raps. "Had to hide in the closet, so she medicate / Society shame and the pain was too much to talk." In 2012, Jay voiced his support for gay marriage in an interview with CNN. "It's no different than discriminating against blacks," he explained. "It's discrimination plain and simple... I think [supporting] is the right thing to do, so whether it costs [Obama] votes or not—again, it's not about votes. It's about people. It's the right thing to do as a human being."
Dark family past
On "spiritual," his only solo release of 2016, Jay throws out a subtle cliffhanger for listeners. "Pray your father's father wasn't touching his little daughter," he notes, before adding, "Creating trans-generational trauma, that shit'll haunt ya." Fast forward to "Legacy," where he elaborates on this scenario by revealing it was his grandfather. "You see, my father, son of a preacher man, whose daughter couldn't escape the reach of the preacher's hand," he reveals.
"That charge of energy set all the Carters back / It took all these years to get to zero in fact." The effect of this sexual abuse trickled down to generations and believe it or not, saw the rapper find a silver lining. The situation then became a double-edged sword for the rapper, who saw that turn of events become a light toward self-reflection. "He was preaching Sundays versus how he was living Monday, Someday I forgive him / Cause strangely our division led to multiple religions / I studied Muslim, Buddhist, and Christians / And I was running from him, He was giving me wisdom." That's the universe working.