By: Liqin Chen and Natalie Kumeh
Written by rapper Jay-Z at 4:44 in the morning, many believe that the song “4:44” is one of his best songs. Released on June 30th of 2017 as part of the album “4:44”, it’s honest and extremely personal in that Jay-Z expresses his regret and apology for cheating on his wife Beyoncé and not supporting her when she needed it. He believes that “4:44” is fitting for his album and that it is one of the best songs he’s ever written. While he did write the song at 4:44 in the morning, 4 is also a special number for the couple since both were born on the fourth day of the month, married on April 4th, and have ‘IV’ matching wedding tattoos. Even though Jay-Z never explicitly stated the song was about himself and Beyoncé, the lyrics and music video are enough hints to show that it is directed towards their relationship. In a way, it is a response to Beyoncé’s album “Lemonade” as he discusses his mistakes and shows heavy remorse for his actions toward her and also towards his daughter. While the song was written by Jay-Z, there was heavy influence from producer No. ID and plenty of other African American singers featured in the song’s music video. Not only does it have clips of figures such as Hannah Williams and the Isley Brothers, footage of Jay-Z with his wife Beyoncé and daughter Blue Ivy, and other scenes of the African American community that feed into the overarching theme of love and relationships in the African American community.
Historical and Cultural Context:
Seeing as “4:44” is a rather personal song, the timeline of the world surrounding the date of the release of this song is hardly relevant. The only details from any events that occurred at or around the time of the album’s release have to pertain to Jay-Z himself and/or his family.
Well over a year before the release of the “4:44” album, we can see a catalyst for this specific song in the album. “Lemonade” was released by Jay-Z’s wife, Beyoncé, and it was clearly addressing the unfaithful actions of her husband and allowing her listeners to hear and begin to understand her feelings towards this major event in her life and marriage. With this cheating scandal floating in, out, and around Jay-Z and his expanding family, it makes sense that he would finally tackle this issue head-on by apologizing to his wife and daughter for his mistakes.
Jay-Z addresses his shortcomings throughout their relationship in this song including his absence in the trials endured by Beyoncé after her stillbirths. Even more recently in the couple’s timeline is the “rumor” of Beyoncé giving birth to a set of twins still raging and awaiting an official confirmation in the weeks leading up to the release of ‘4:44’. The first lines spoken by Jay in the song address the fact that it took his kids for him to see that his errors cannot go on without acknowledgement and correction.
When Jay is speaking on the beginning of his relationship with Bey, there is strong reflection of the stigma in black cultural relating to how men should treat their women. If they are seen showing too much affection or “lovey-dovey’ instead of acting tough, they are talked down upon. In other words, it can be heard in the way he chose his words that there is a society that makes it hard for men, especially black men, to truly soften up for a woman to the public. He even mentions how instead of asking for Beyoncé to become his girlfriend or start a more serious relationship with him his words are “don’t embarrass me”. This shows that he was more worried about how she would affect his image than how she feels or how he plays a part in their new relationship too.
All these years later, after a marriage and children Beyoncé and Jay-Z are still in that relationship but now the tables have turned, and he has embarrassed her with his infidelity. In an interview with the executive editor of the New York Times, Dean Baquet, Jay-Z confesses that neither ‘Lemonade’ nor ‘4:44’ were planned come across as personal or related to their marriage as they were. Along with that, the music the other created made them uncomfortable, but they were still very proud and respectful of each other’s works. This speaks volumes about the underlying strength and love that lies in their relationship.
Themes and Styles:
“4:44” is unique because it is an extremely personal topic that Jay-Z raps about: his relationship and infidelities with his wife Beyoncé, not showing signs of shying away from his mistakes. As a result, the lyrics are very intimate and reference specific events between the two of them. While it is a rap song, chorus music from Hannah Williams & The Affirmations’ “Late Nights & Heartbreak” mixes in with Jay-Z’s own lyrics to express the themes of love and relationships. Through the meaning of the lyrics and the glimpses of the couple’s lives and other African American artists in the music video, Jay-Z’s song offers an insight into marital relationships of the African American community, while at the same time celebrating the art and culture that has developed in contemporary culture.
Fig. 1., Music video by Jay-Z performing “4:44”, Youtube.com; Aug. 1, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSkA61esq_c
The somber, almost slow pace of the song takes the listener back to the past where Jay-Z admits “Look, I apologize/often womanize” and opens up about cheating on Beyoncé and being unable to have the feelings and attitude of a father, as well as what he did wrong and acknowledging the hurt he caused Beyoncé. In the beginning of Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s relationship, there were many rumors of Jay-Z cheating on Beyoncé and these rumors were also addressed by Beyoncé herself in her album “Lemonade”. It’s not an upbeat or energetic song, but rather fittingly a very apologetic and serious song.
Additionally, the commentary in the beginning of the music video by Eartha Kitta talking about love sets the undertone for the rest of the music video to focus on relationships and love. Kitta argues that there should be no compromise in love, and while relationships are “wonderful,” they should be earned, not compromised. This calls out to honesty in relationships so that both sides can open up to each other fully, especially when there is conflict.
Conflict from Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s relationship is hinted at in “4:44”. There are specific scenes from their lives mentioned in the song, such as the rift and separation in their marriage partly due to Jay-Z’s increasing fame and wealth. “And all this ratchet shit and we more expansive/Not meant to cry and die alone in these mansions/Or sleep with our back turned/We supposed to vacay ’til our backs burn” references the fame and wealth gained by “more expansive” and “mansions”. Known as a power couple, they are one of the highest paid celebrity couples due to the success of their song and also their businesses. It is expected then that this would be a very happy couple, since nothing seemed amiss in the eyes of the media, yet “supposed to be vacay ‘til our backs burn” and “sleep with our back turned” hints at a different reality. In a happy marriage, couples usually sleep together and vacation or have fun together; the opposite ideas reinforced in the song evidence an unhappy marriage.
In the present, the song moves toward Jay-Z’s worries of never being forgiven for his mistakes since he not only cheated on Beyoncé, but he also apologizes “for all the stillborns cause [he] wasn’t present” to support her and ease her pain when it was found out about the miscarriage. Most everyone knew that Beyoncé was pregnant with twins but suffered a miscarriage, which saddened her greatly. He regretted “letting [her] down everyday” and apologizes for “running away” in the past; now he has matured and learned from his mistakes, and the song reflects that development. Jay-Z confesses “I suck at love/I think I need a do-over” and worries over his actions’ impact on his daughter Blue when he wonders “And if my children knew/I won’t even know what I would do” and thinks he “would probably die with all the shame.” His daughter is young now and can be shielded from media rumors and bad news in the press, but she will grow up and likely find out about what he did and her parents’ relationship; Jay-Z worries about her reaction to this and its effect on her growth. Being a father, he now has responsibilities to both his wife and his daughter.
Seemingly a personal subject at first glance, “4:44” calls out to African American men in relationships, especially for them admit and learn from their wrongs and not hesitate to ask for forgiveness, and to become better husbands and fathers for their wives and children.
This song is something the public was not expecting from an artist like Jay-Z, even after his wife opened up about her struggles with their relationship after his infidelity. So naturally, with the public being in shock and awe there is a lot of analysis surrounding the lyrics and the production of this song.
There are some critics who admired the telling of both sides of the story from Beyoncé and Jay-Z. They were surprised by the openness but taken with the honesty and how this scenario changes the societal norms for surrounding social communities. According to Brittany Spanos, author of an article on the Rolling Stone, both Beyoncé with ‘Lemonade’ and Jay-Z with ‘4:44’ “redefine black love” and “completes a raw yet dignified portrait of black love and fame in modern America”. The importance of this viewpoint falls to the young black community which may use black celebrities such as Beyoncé and her husband as models of what “black love” should or should not be. Whether or not they were content with how this couple choose to use this episode of weakness in a relationship to strengthen their bond, they did form an endless amount of opinions that will consciously and subconsciously shape their lives.
Although the public is the main audience of his song, there are people that are much closer to the project that had many opinions about his song. In the eyes of these people that are closer to Jay-Z and the song, such as No I.D, it was about time for Jay-Z to open up about not only the scandal surrounding his marriage but his marriage and general. No I.D is a well-versed producer who helped artists such as Kanye and Drake create singles that moved their audience while also being responsible for other artists such as Jhené Aiko and Vince Staples getting their start. No I.D. was also the only producer on the album 4:44, when in today’s day and age, it is more common to have multiple producers on one album. The producer said that “I knew he wanted to [say those things],” when speaking about Jay-Z and his openness about his relationship in his new music. He continued with “I don’t want to take credit for what he wanted to do in the first place. I helped push him … Meaning: You wanted a Picasso, but why? You’re with Beyoncé, but what is that really like? What’s the pressure? What’s the responsibility? What’s the ups and downs? I wanted him to not be over people’s heads.” There was a tone of encouragement and curiosity with No I.D which prompted Jay-Z to release what he did, and there is an understanding of approval amongst all those involved in the production of this song.
Other “average” people such as Mosi Reeves also from the Rolling Stone thought the initial thought of Jay-Z making a public apology to anyone was at the very least “unnerving”, but later those feelings of slight fear changed to an admiration of his willingness to express vulnerability to the public for the sake of his wife. There is complimentary feeling for this more “down-to-earth Jay” in the opinion of Reeves. Even still there are those like, Rebecca King, an author of an article titled “Jay-Z’s 4:44: A Lyric Analysis”. Who aren’t the least bit interest in Jay-Z or the kind of music he creates. In the aforementioned article, she discusses the lyrics of the top 2 songs on Jay-Z’s album but starts off with a disclaimer which states her distaste for rap music in general and Jay-Z in specific. When she eventually discusses the individual song ‘4:44’ she praises Jay-Z for his admittances and how he chose to bare himself to completely apologize to his wife for his shortcomings and poor decisions. It is interesting that even those who are in the outer circle of the “audience pool” were still touched, affected, and formed opinions on his work.
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Afterlives of slavery, Jay-Z, rap, African American relationships, “4:44”, Beyonce, African American men