There are moments on 4:44 that might make you sit up and wonder why JAY-Z hasn’t been rapping like this all along. The hustler was compelling on his earlier efforts, and his ascent from the street to the boardroom changed rap. But there’s a sense of naturalness here that feels unmatched in his catalog, the unclenched jaw that comes before a long sigh of relief. You can hear that relief on a track like “Smile,” in which he raps about seeing his mother Gloria accept her sexuality late in life. It’s a song that lets you into Jay’s family—and offers an analogy for his own experience: “In the shadows people see you as happy and free,” Gloria notes on the song’s outro. “Because that’s what you want them to see/Living two lives, happy, but not free.” Jay could no doubt relate. The benefits of keeping up the front—his career, his artistic legacy, money—had dominated Jay’s public life by the time of 4:44. He’d spent 20 years thawing out in front of millions. And he was finally ready to be himself. And while circa-2017 JAY-Z existed on a plane high above us mere mortals, the ideas and anxieties underpinning 4:44 are surprisingly relatable. We all get to a certain age, you know. An age when transgressions feel heavier and less important to defend (“4:44”). An age when you’re proud of your achievements (“Family Feud”), yet still have days when you want to burn it all down (“Kill Jay Z”). An age when you’re wiser, for sure, and more humble in how you show it (“Legacy”)—but still stubbornly hanging onto hard conversations like a bulldog (“The Story of O.J.”). But if 4:44 is a midlife self-portrait, it’s one that coincides with a shift toward rappers excavating their personal messes as a show of artistic nerve. The consistency of the sound—soulful, understated, classic but interestingly fragmented—doesn’t just provide the album with a spine. It tells you that we’re all in one head, sharing one living, breathing perspective. For listeners familiar with The Sopranos, think of Tony squirming in Dr. Melfi’s chair. For everyone else, think of the middle-aged man who laughs because he’s too nervous to cry, and who knows he isn’t fooling anyone—and then, when you least expect it, lets it all go.

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