I know where Jay Z (Jay:Z?) is headed. And all it took was a thirty-second clip, a title, and like three-and-a-half bars, because for the most part, in the GOAT’s own words I “predicted this shit exactly.” Sort of.
But first, the new news: 4:44 is indeed a Jay Z album, and the “movie,” starring Academy Award winners Mahershala Ali, Lupita Nyong’o, and the respected vet the Academy has failed to recognize, Danny Glover, is likely some sort of accompanying visual. The real jaw-dropper, though: one of the new songs is titled “Adnis,” as in Adnis Reeves, Jay’s father.
Why is this a big deal? For starters, the portion of the song we hear in the 30-second clip is somber and mellow, a far cry from rollout opening shots like “Change Clothes” or “I Just Wanna Love U.” Then there’s the lyrics: “Letter to my dad that I never wrote.” Shawn’s fraught relationship with his father is documented across his discography from the first song on his first album, “Can’t Knock the Hustle” (“My pops knew exactly what he did when he made me/Tried to get a nut, and he got a nut in—what”) to lashing out at him head-on in Dynasty’s searing “Where Have You Been?” (“Fuck you very much, you showed me the worst kind of pain”) to reconciling on The Black Album's “Moment of Clarity” (“So, Pop, I forgive you for all the shit that I lived through/It wasn’t all your fault, homie, you got caught…I’m just glad we got to see each other/Talk and re-meet each other”).
On American Gangster’s “Pray” he went back to fill in pieces of the story (“My papa just left the house/In search of the killer of my uncle Ray”) and on Watch the Throne’s “New Day” he voiced his fear that he’d inherit his father’s parenting style (“Promise to never leave him even if his mama tweakin/Cuz my dad left me and I promise never repeat him”). “Spiritual,” the most recent Jay Z solo song, features the line “We call her Blue cuz it’s sad that/How can I be a dad that, I never had that.”
“Spiritual,” released during the week last summer when Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police, is quite possibly the most personal song yet from an artist whose career was, in some ways, predicated by keeping his emotional cards close to his bulletproof vest, peeling back layers on only a handful of songs per album. Maturity and, subsequently, fatherhood, have increased the degree to which Jay Z gets more open in the booth. I’d goes as far to say that post-retirement Hov is at his most potent when he gets introspective. After Lemonade dropped, I posited that Beyonce set the stage for Jay to meet her halfway with a project equally intimate:
Now, his wife has put the ball in his court to match her by making his rawest, most intimate work to date. Their marriage may have always been fine; their marriage may have endured tumult thanks to him only to come out on the other side. Whatever Jay did or didn’t do, he clearly has lingering demons, as evidenced on “Jay Z Blue.” Is Hov ready to let us in? His new album might feel hollow if he doesn’t.
Later that year, when Jay released “Spiritual” from the vaults (messaging around the release suggested he recorded it in 2014), it seemed like a sign that he was moving in that direction:
He’s rapping better and going deeper than he was three years ago. If Magna Carta sounded like Jay rapping from the biggest castle with the tallest walls, his 2016 offerings suggest the king has finally rejoined the mob.
Now, launching his album rollout with a song named after his father—released as Father’s Day ended, in the same week that his brood spiked from one to three—and the opening bars, “Letters to my dad that I never wrote/Speeches prepared that I never spoke” over a somber, mellow beat while Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali jabs at a punching bag like he’s trying to get the demons out with each right hook pretty much confirms we’re headed into uncharted emotional territory. Is Ali playing Adnis, the errant father who succumbs to his vices and abandons his family, with Nyonog’o playing Gloria Carter? Or is he playing Jay (because let’s face it, he can’t act as well as his wife), the traumatized son still working out his own issues with his father late into adulthood? More lines from “Spiritual”: “This is tougher than any gun that I raised…Peeling back the layers, uncovering/Scars that never healed, I never kept it this real.”
We’ll learn exactly how real Jay’s willing to get when 4:44 drops on June 30, but regardless, this is exciting; it’s like if “New Day” was the first song we heard from WTT. The only reason to create new art is to explore new themes, and on album 13, the only unexplored terrain for Jay is inward. Jay has credited reconciling with his father as the primary reason he was able to let himself have a successful relationship. That relationship and, later, fatherhood pushed him to be more sentimental and confessional on wax. As a father of three, Jay’s challenge is avoiding treacle. The apparent inclusion of master sensei like No ID suggests whatever zone Hov finds himself in, the focus will be unwavering. Don’t let the Sprint of it all get you twisted—Jigga always finds a way to get a bag with his art and it’s time we stop begrudging him for it. Cellphone/streaming service marketing notwithstanding, it looks like we’re about to see Jay expose a rarely seen side of himself.