“Old school” still has some currency in hip-hop. It nods to forebears, styles and history. “Old” is a different story. “Old” means you’re past your prime. It means you have nothing new to say — and even if you did, who would want to listen? “Old” means maybe you know what’s new, but you want to do it the way you’ve always done it. So “old” also means fixed, settled, stuck.
By those standards, Jay-Z, at 47, might seem old. Standards are presumptuous, though, because, really, what do we know about “old” rappers? Only that they don’t rap as much as they used to. I mean, they’re still around — but as part of back-patting nostalgia (in concert or on HBO) or hosting the Grammys or cooking with Martha Stewart. Maybe they’ve still got it. But vital new music is secondary at best.
Despite a lot of lucrative distractions, Jay-Z is still a rapper, whose voice, apparently, still matters. “Apparently,” because I didn’t expect much from “4:44,” his 13th solo (or solo-ish) record that arrived, as heavily advertised, at the end of June.
But it’s better than good: a gorgeously produced stab at self-examination (it runs less than the length of a standard therapy session) that suggests a new direction for rap’s elder statesmen. It also demonstrates a way that certain black artists can reckon with middle age — by accepting the emotionalism, humor and self-criticism that come naturally to a current generation of younger rappers.
Anybody irritated by the posturing of Jay-Z’s previous album, “Magna Carta: Holy Grail” (2013), was likely put off by the prospect of more. If a major rapper arrives at his mid-40s and wants to give us a song that mentions fine wines and a serial-killer drug dealer, then drops the name of a fashion-designer-movie-director more than a dozen times (“Tom Ford”), maybe he should be hosting the Grammys, too.
It’s entirely possible that Jay-Z arrived to record “Magna Carta” aware that there’s not much of a road map for a rapper in his 40s, especially one whose body of work and reputation are great enough to haunt him. His clever, brash, kaleidoscopically grim 1996 debut, “Reasonable Doubt,” is as much a work of memoir of life in the street-level drug trade as it is an album.
On it, he raps with the impunity of a mafia don. It’s a distinction that’s always kept him seeming a little older than everybody else, while, eventually, holding his competitors’ youth against them. On songs like “Change Clothes,” with Pharrell, from 2003, and “Off That,” with a young-and-hungry Drake, from 2009, he was all too happy to display a cranky old-soul impatience, arguing that because he thinks he is grown up, his peers should, too.
“Y’all [epithet] acting way too tough/Throw on a suit, and get it tapered up,” he implored on “Change Clothes.”
But eventually that sense of superiority came to sound like an exercise. Rap is a language art, and no matter your age, you need something to say. The problem with “Magna Carta” wasn’t that Jay-Z was too old. It is that he sounded bored. The music was disconnected from life, and his materialism sounded passé even for hip-hop. Fashion, art, love, even philanthropy were spiked with a testy self-consciousness. The whole thing reeked of midlife crisis.
“4:44” sounds like a consequence of that crisis. Maybe Jay-Z was bored in his 40s. Maybe he cheated on his wife, Beyoncé. He bought expensive stuff and maybe needed to brag about it. Maybe he was as skeptical and uncertain as we were about what such a person should be rapping about.
Then Beyoncé released “Lemonade,” and more or less told him. It arrived in the spring of 2016 and announced to the world that his sense of risk — as a former drug dealer, an entrepreneur and a womanizer — has a cost: her love.
It’s believable that Jay-Z really had run out of fresh ideas. But if he were going to keep making new records, “Lemonade” demanded at least a partial response to Beyoncé’s agony and the scope of her artistry.
The resulting album isn’t trying to match either. “Lemonade” is a fully processed, entirely emotional performance. “4:44” is Tony Soprano at his first couple of sessions with Dr. Melfi. He’s not totally sure why he’s here and is occasionally petty about it. Jay-Z acknowledges the pain he caused without entirely agreeing to own it.
It’s the production, by the longtime hip-hop and R&B producer No I.D., that most gives the album its psychology. He puts samples by the Alan Parsons Project, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, the Clark Sisters and Hannah Williams & the Affirmations to masterly use. Where Jay-Z is inclined to be passive, the music insinuates. It makes him seem more culpable, vulnerable, spiritual and transparent than he might even realize. No I.D. is a studio wizard. He’s also Dr. Melfi.
Jay-Z’s old creative and sexual promiscuity have been replaced by an act of commitment. No more women, just his wife. No more gluts of great producers, just this one. These are the new risks for him: monogamy, focus, trust. There are new existential concerns, too. The ambition here extends from his own plight to the straits of black people all over America. Nothing like a coherent thesis emerges, but he’s feeling his way toward if not a moral capitalism then the idea of who capitalism is for.
Promiscuity is a rap subject. Paternity, not so much. Young men, understandably, aren’t too concerned with the future. New money tends to burn holes in pockets. Putting something away, having something to hand down, those tend to be old-person concerns. Certainly, other rappers have wills. But Jay-Z is actually ruminating about his. He’s wondering, too, whether your money’s doing all it can.
On “4:44,” he gets churlish about that. In “The Story of O.J.,” he asks and answers, “You know what’s more important than spending money in a strip club? Credit.”
A line later, he is asking, regrettably, if we know why the Jews own all the property in the United States. His phrasing perpetuates one stereotype to emphasize another about black people and capital — that, compared with white people, they have none. His pointing this out at 47 requires you to know what he was like when he was 27, when the gentleman at the club was him.
Some of the risk of being an old rapper is that the old posturing won’t do. You actually have to stand for something. Jay-Z also has to reckon with where he has stood — with the Obamas on one hand but also cavalierly against womankind on the other. What does he make of his track record, his history, say, with women, and what will his children make of that?
Maybe this is why young rappers don’t rap old. The evolving nature of maturity can make you seem like a hypocrite.
This idea of legacy becomes a halting socioeconomic lecture on “4:44.” He’s working hard for his estate so that death won’t leave a hole. It will leave a whole. This is an ultrapractical view of the end of life that testifies to the sort of bootstrap conservatism that argues that because one black person has overcome the systemic and self-inflicted roadblocks to success, anyone can. These are his rags-to-riches racial politics. He’s made his black life matter, so should you.
The emotional twist on “4:44” is that despite years of his rapping about the empire he’s built, he didn’t know its value until he almost lost the woman who helped build it. Maybe he was being too much of a man to notice. Not long after the album’s release, Jay-Z put out an awkwardly short companion video in which famous black men (and Aziz Ansari) discuss being lovers and fathers and living at an emotional disadvantage in relationships with women. It’s fascinating but also probably beside the point of his adultery. The video’s point is: We black men can talk about the difficulties of being black men. We can emote!
You saw something like that a couple of weeks ago on an episode of “The Bachelorette” when a suitor — one of the very last — named Eric sincerely warns Rachel that his life in Baltimore isn’t as posh as in some of the show’s European locations or as stable as those of the white men he is up against. Eric started as a cutup. But we are supposed to believe that Rachel has grown him up. And so his moving admission of mere circumstantial inferiority (he’s poor) was meant to enhance his worth as a man.
The beauty of Barry Jenkins’ romance “Moonlight” — some of it, anyway — is the way it didn’t have to work half as hard to let you see deep inside a character who over time graduates from impressionable child to impenetrable adult thug. You never lose sight of the emotional void that he winds up driving half the night to fill.
As popular culture archetypes, these used to be scary black men. But every once in a while, they’re granted a humanity that, with old-school rappers, is harder to come by. It’s not an art form that forgives weakness, concession or blame. It runs on burnishing and destroying egos. It thrives on the performance of flawless maximal authenticity and lyrical supremacy. Jay-Z doesn’t relinquish his ego on “4:44.” But on “Kill Jay-Z,” the rueful opening song, he contemplates the downsides of having such a strong one: “Die Jay-Z, this ain’t back in the days/You don’t need an alibi, Jay-Z/Cry Jay-Z, we know the pain is real/But you can’t heal what you never reveal.”
This is Jay-Z driving half the night, to some place we’ve never seen him go, perhaps to some place he’s never even been. But part of maturity — whether or not you’re a rapper — is being human enough to accept that the first step is getting in the car.