How Jay-Z’s 4:44 Defies the Odds of What it Means to Grow old in Hip-Hop
Hip-hop has always been a genre dominated by the youth. Those who’ve made a name for themselves before the turn of the 21st century are currently few and far in between. This group is even smaller when talking about artists who are still relevant in today’s rap landscape. So what has Jay-Z done to stay both in the mainstream eye and continue to make great music even as he approaches 50? For the longest time, it looked as rappers either fade out of the picture before the quality of music falls off a cliff or become so popular that they hang around long enough by default and taint their legacy through the inevitable lackluster middle and late-career albums such as what has happened to Eminem. Jay-Z’s career trajectory, on the other hand, tells a different story. It can be a cold world for many rappers once they hit 30, let alone approaching 50. Still, on Jay-Z’s thirteenth studio album, 4:44, he seemingly cracked the code, putting up big numbers in terms of sales while continuing to be one of the most beloved figures in rap from a quality standpoint.
The praise that Jay-Z has gotten from his late-career future classic has been so immense that it can be easy to forget just how much hate he received for his previous couple of albums. After his 2007 critically acclaimed American Gangster, it had been tough sledding for the Brooklyn native. 2009’s Blueprint 3, which was a mediocre attempt at an album full of radio-friendly cuts, failed to meet the expectations of everyone except the casual mainstream listener. Things arguably got worse in 2013 with the release of Magna Carta Holy Grail that saw a drastic shift in sound. After chasing pop-rap hits in 2009, Jay-Z attempted to dabble in trap production. Longtime fans and critics alike ripped Hov for his clunky bars, repetitively telling us how rich he was, and the fact that a man on the wrong side of 40 was choosing to rap over beats that sounded like they were curated for an artist half his age. By now, Jay-Z was quickly falling out of favor, a hip-hop legend making weak attempts to keep up with the times and sadly looking like the next veteran to earn the undesirable title of washed up and irrelevant. The man who built a legacy off club anthems such as “Big Pimpin’” and “I Just Wanna Love U” had gone stale. The people who were listening to Jay-Z in the club in the late 90s and early 00s were no longer there. Jay-Z’s primary demographic of listeners grew up, many entering their forties and no longer caring for his present-day music. Everyone but Jay-Z had grown up, and it was starting to show.
More than four years had gone by, outside of a handful of guest features, the Solange elevator incident, and being on the wrong side of Beyonce’s Lemonade, Jay-Z’s name had not come up much outside of his business ventures. This all changed in June of 2017 when the announcement of Jay-Z’s thirteenth studio album had broke, and many were indifferent. It was exciting to anticipate new Jay-Z music for the first time since 2013, however without a single good album to show for in what was going on a decade, many had realized that it was more likely than not Jay-Z didn’t have another classic in him, let alone an album that would satisfy fans with already diminishing expectations. For many, Jay-Z was starting to become a nuisance rather than an anticipated artist and why instead of going nuts over a new album, some were hoping Hov would alternatively call it quits as a rapper to preserve his legacy.
Without even a promotional single to show for, fans were going into 4:44 blind, but quickly into the first track, “Kill Jay Z,” people were beyond blown away. Jay-Z’s thirteenth studio album wasn’t just his another L.P., but an apology to Beyonce for his past troubles and it didn’t stop there. On 4:44, Jay-Z raps about investing, racism, his roots, and killing off his ego just to scratch the surface. Jay-Z, who had been best known for his braggadocious larger than life persona, did an absolute 180 on 4:44. Outside of his iconic flow and voice, it was initially hard to fathom 4:44 as a Jay-Z album leading to many citing it as a Shawn Carter album instead. After being stuck in a rut for a decade, Jay-Z finally broke through with a fitting late-career album that exhibited the growth and maturity of a man who was showing the signs of an artist desperate to stay young. It may have come after a low ten year period from an artistic standpoint, but on 4:44 Jay-Z figured out what it meant to grow old in hip-hop. Instead of fighting father time, he decided to embrace his veteran status demonstrating that for a rapper age is nothing but a number.
So what does all this amount to in regards to staying both a mainstream specimen and an adored figure? On 4:44 Jay-Z delivered an album that’s fitting to his age, something veteran emcees typically don’t figure out until it’s too late. Instead of trap-influenced beats, Hov recruited legendary producer No I.D. and his trademark sample style production, and instead of rapping about how rich he is instead rapped about how not just to get rich, but be smart with money and leave a legacy for lasting generations. Through his immense newfound emotion and vulnerability, Jay-Z made a type of album fans had practically been begging him to make for years. These changes paid obvious dividends, outside of a critically acclaimed album, the 4:44 Tour went on to be Hov’s highest grossing solo tour ever selling out arenas each night proving to everyone that he’s just as relevant as ever. No other rapper besides Jay-Z has been able to tour for a new critically acclaimed album selling out arenas, in some cases grossing over two million dollars a night twenty plus years deep into a career.
Today it feels like anyone can become an overnight sensation in hip-hop, but on the other hand, it’s also the hardest genre to stay relevant, and nobody has done that better than Jay-Z. Everything about 4:44 era Jay-Z speaks growth, and quite frankly, that’s has been the blueprint to his career now entering a stage where it’s aging like fine wine. A few years, back it wasn’t looking like a late-career resurgence was anywhere near, but getting out of the comfort zone that was the decade before 4:44 submits Jay-Z’s legacy as the king of commercial and artistic relevance. Now at almost 50, it’ll be interesting to see how many more albums Jay-Z has left in the tank even if he shows no signs of slowing down. For this reason, only expect the legend of Jay-Z to grow to new heights as his timeless career continues to unfold.