“There’s a fine line between heaven and here” – Bubbles
Lao-Tzu once said “Celebrate your Failures, lament your successes”; Jay-Z has learned that, to his benefit, on 4:44, an album that manages to be fractious, fractured, and the compelling kind of incomplete.
Coming on the heels of Lemonade, 4:44 sits in the middle of two swirling eddies pulling in opposite directions. On the one, a canny business man, father, artist, and lover who broke Public Enemy’s first rule and fell for their own hype; on the other, a former gangsta, an untrustworthy malcontent, a lascivious hateful man who doesn’t know who deserves what, and, most glaringly, a black man.
This album is as defined by its swirling palate of chaos, as by its jagged definition of what it means to be black: a perpetual pull, the mule accompanying 40 acres pushing its heels as it’s master forces it forward. From the opening air raid sirens of “Kill Jay Z”, where Jay kills his ego onward, there is an ever present tension. An irreconcilable abnegation of self.
The samples, often distorted, broken, atonal, rough around the edges support this sense of internal chaos. “The Story of OJ” – one of my favorite tracks – is sprinkled with pitch-shifted vocal fragments while a glitch-fixed piano falls scatters tense high-key fragments. A recognition of being a smart man, a rich man, everything the american dream epitomizes; and yet, he can’t escape the status as a house, field, rich or poor n****r.
How frustrating that’s gotta be: to do everything you can, and still be somehow less. Jay-z’s earthy straightforward flow is at its most barren and effect: no frills, with concrete vector imagery: every detail thrown into a centrifuge, crashing into each other, paints a pollock that may be worth a million or two, if he plays it right.
While generously allotted throughout the album, Shawn Carter’s essential struggle is brought to its essence in that Story. Simultaneously laughing at OJ’s declaration of “I’m not black, I’m OJ”, he reflects the shattered mirror of his own financial failures and successes. He muses obsessively on his vast fortune, his business acumen, his musical talents, all with an easy lilt. But that refrain punctures. He can’t escape it, no matter how successful he gets he’ll always be black.
Even his self-aggrandizement only serves to make him a target of his own verbal slaughter. Every lyric about his ability to seemingly create millions out of thin air runs into constant barrage of nips and jibes of his failures, whether giving too much credit to Kanye, Cheating on Beyoncé – going Eric Benét (almost)- or shooting his own brother. No stone is left unturned.
I can’t claim to understand that kind of immense frustration. To feel and be seen as perpetually behind, to be less, no matter how high you fly. The whole album rides on that tension. Whether it’s discussions of is upbringing; his family; or his admission of guilt. Nothing comes easy on this record.
I don’t consider this album an apology, either. It’s too ambivalent for that. It feels more like a struggle. No effort is made to draw a neat little box around the feelings or self-perceptions Carter goes through, whether it be the struggle of reconciling a hard past with a different kind of hard, or his relationship with the Queen.
It’s always good to have an emotional thru-line, and, in the case of this record, his relationship with Queen bey is certainly a jagged kind of good. It reeks of uncertainty, tentativeness, and out and out frustration.He sounds most vulnerable on the centerpiece of the record “4:44” when he discusses emotional coldness, the fear of alienation; learning how to be soft. He sounds terrified of a lack of intimacy more than a knife in the back. It’s a refreshing kind of terror.
Even when she makes an appearance as the choir on “Amen”, there is a constant feeling of guilt and uncertainty, layered in a sheath of recognition; a decisive acknowledgement of wrongdoing. It’s a refreshingly complicated line to straddle.
Further, Master-Z’s production is on point. Un-bassy, with a lot of the samples occupying the mid’s and trebles, there is a real sense of turmoil gleaned from the spare, often unnerving production with its ticklish uncomfortable flourishes. I often feel like Z was listening to 22, a million liberally when coming up with the sampling style.
In fact, I feel like this record, although more coherent (and compelling, fight me), than Bon iver’s cut, is very much a similar thesis statement: my shit is falling apart, and I’m watching it happen from a million glittering angles. It feels like pieces of a broken mirror arrayed against each other to create a mirror house, with the Ego of Jay-Z as some devilish doppelganger to as its pepper’s ghost hologram, not quite real, but uncomfortably so, at the same time.
It’s a statement I gravitate toward regularly: inconclusive chaos. That entropy that accompanies the end of the universe. This album sounds like the Buddha’s walking to the Bodhi tree, but not his sitting under it. The soul samples on what is undoubtedly the centerpiece “4:44” have a dramatic heft because of the directness and uncertainty.
That said, the back half of the album isn’t nearly as consistently excellent as the first half; and by the end it has certainly lost its steam. But it’s a record that wisely chooses for brevity, and it is a rich experience, after its reasonably short run time of 36 minutes.
The essence of Taoism, Buddhism and eastern dualistic religions is the tension of this album: one end of the spectrum looks much like the other. Success is its own kind of failure, and vice versa.
And when its handled this honestly: ugly and naked and uncertain and ripped in a million pieces, it certainly hits the right spot with me.
Until I stop running away.