Kyle Rohde & Will Berry
Professor Anna Ioanes
12 April 2018
Jay-Z released his thirteenth official studio album on June 30th, 2017. The album, entitled 4:44 and released through the record label Roc Nation, was originally released solely through Jay-Z’s own streaming service, Tidal, but within a week after the release, the album was made available on the majority of streaming platforms, excluding Spotify. Similar to his previous release, Magna Carter Holy Grail, 4:44 was not preceded with any
single releases. In fact, the only promotion for the album prior to release was a series of billboards around New York and Los Angeles displaying only the album’s cover art. 4:44 is highly regarded as an album in which “Jay-Z is vulnerable, apologetic, and still dazzling,” which explains the numerous awards it has received including nominations for best rap album and best rap performance at the Grammys (Rolling Stone).
Unique to most artists (excluding his wife, Beyonce), Jay-Z supplemented every song on 4:44 with its own music video — a groundbreaking bridge between the audio and visual experience of music. This creative way of presenting music allows listeners to experience the album in a different way; the intended messages behind each song becomes less ambiguous through watching the videos. The music videos hold their own notability, having been directed by world-renowned directors such as Alan Yang and Mark Romanek, directors of productions such as Master of None and Never Let Me Go, respectively.
The opening song of the album, ‘Kill Jay Z,’ is as if Jay-Z opens the album with a letter to himself; the message being to “kill” off his old self — his narcissistic, braggadocious self — and focus on the humility of life among family (Renshaw). This sets an excellent framework for the remainder of the album as the album focuses on the human experience from Jay-Z’s perspective.
The creation of the album was a meticulous process in which Jay-Z pays tribute to black culture and family ties through a high quality production of both the music and complimentary videos. 4:44 is layered, complex, and detailed, covering a wide range of controversial topics, and fans and critics alike responded with appreciation for Jay-Z’s ability to deliver his message with honesty and humility.
HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL CONTEXT
Although 4:44 is a rap album whose audience is often considered to be appealing to the modern generation, the album heavily references and is dependent upon historical context as a framework, which are both explicit and implicit throughout the album. The song “The Story of OJ” is a direct reference to the OJ Simpson case, but the song itself is also an allusion to the stagnant status of African-Americans in society and their difficulty in transcending this status. One of the most notable lines of the song, “Rich ni**a, poor ni**a, house ni**a, field ni**a/Still ni**a,” highlights Jay-Z’s belief that, regardless of the status achieved by black individuals in modern day (as well as historically), African-Americans continue to experience comparable levels of discrimination, specifically within the music industry. Miles White argues that “a uniquely American popular culture and normative whiteness were constructed together around (mis)representations of blackness and black music,” (White 762). The line, a direct juxtaposition of the confinement of Africans in regards to slavery (“field ni**a”) to African-Americans today (“rich ni**a, poor ni**a”), is Jay-Z’s way of highlighting his perception of the American society and its systematic discrimination to place black people as inferior, rooted within slavery.
The historical allusions are meticulously crafted and subtly included in order to create a beautifully cohesive work with many historical layers, many of which are ambiguously left up to the listeners own discretion. For example, in “The Story of OJ,” the line “I coulda bought a place in DUMBO before it was DUMBO/For like 2 million/That same building today is worth 25 million/Guess how I’m feelin’? Dumbo” artistically references both the neighborhood in Brooklyn “Dumbo” but also the fictional character, Dumbo.
Many fans believe this reference plays into a character in the movie, Jim Crow, who played a racist stereotype (Genius). Jay-Z leaves the audience wondering if it is in fact the neighborhood in New York he is referencing or if he is highlighting the racist caricatures present in the movie, Dumbo.
The historical references throughout the album, specifically within the music videos, are endless, but the main connection between them is in reference to the historical African-American struggle. For example, the allusion to the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans seen in the ‘Legacy’ video. In the video itself, the inmates are discussing the fact that, even if they were to escape, they would end up back incarcerated, a notion supported by Indiana Department of Corrections who stated that 40.6% of African-
Americans are reincarcerated as compared to 34% of caucasians. Additionally, the ‘Moonlight’ video highlights the unfamiliarity of African-Americans in modern sitcoms, a genre of television that began prior to the prominence of African-Americans on television. Perhaps the most notable of references of African-American mistreatment within the videos occurs in the ‘4:44’ music video in which the disproportional representation of African-Americans in leadership positions in modern day society is noted through the futurist setting featuring a dominantly black royal family.
Jay-Z often includes the common theme of African-Americans dissociating from their own race. Out of fear that his race will negatively affect the outcome of his case, OJ Simpson stated in court that he’s “not black, [he’s] OJ,” an iconic line that Jay-Z includes on the track “The Story of OJ.” Simpson is believed to have said this solely because he felt his race would negatively affect the outcome of the case. Jay-Z directly draws from his personal experiences, contributing to what Miles White considers to be a manifestation of the history of black culture: “to be a ‘real ni**a’ in rap music parlance is be a product of the ghetto, a political move that implicitly acknowledges the limitations of American democracy… and black middle-class abandonment” (White 39). Jay-Z raps about what he knows, and what he knows has transitioned from violence on the streets of Brooklyn to one of the African-Americans with social, economic, and even political influence in modern America.
Jay-Z himself is often regarded as a trailblazer for modern rap music. Having been active during the 2Pac and Biggie Smalls era, Jay-Z’s inspiration is drawn from rappers such as Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent. These inspirations, among others, were referenced in a series of Tweets from Jay-Z shortly before the album was released.
THEMES AND STYLE
In Jay Z’s video album 4:44, which tackles a myriad of different themes throughout, he utilizes a wide array of both visual and oral elements in order to convey nuanced messages about racial inequalities that have persisted in America across time. Among the most central of these themes include issues such as racial discrimination, infidelity, sexuality, and the black struggle in modern day America (Journal of Black Studies).
These themes seek to tackle both the turbulent personal struggles occurring in Jay Z’s own life at the time of conception as well as comment on the systemic discrimination against black people from police, the legal system, and society at large. For instance, in “Marcy Me” we follow the night of a young boy being unknowingly watched by a police helicopter flying overhead with scenic shots of the New York City skyline in the background. This video clearly seeks to draw further attention to the issue of police brutality which has recently garnered considerable attention in the media. This video seeks to demonstrate that the unfair treatment and persecution against the black community is embedded in the mindset of law enforcement. For instance, the police in the search helicopter are told to search for a “man in black, wearing a hoodie” and that this suspect is armed with a knife. Throughout the video, these police officers seem to systemically single out black people or groups of black people, even though the initial directions included no mention of the suspect’s skin color.
Throughout the video, which mainly follows the journey of a young black boy to the convenience store and back to his home in a clearly low-income neighborhood, we see constant reminders of this unfair persecution of black people that seems almost embedded into the thought processes of law enforcement officials. With the police in this video harassing black people performing innocent acts such as racing on the sidewalk or spending time with their significant other in an alleyway, it feels to those watching this video as if there is nothing innocent black people can do to avoid unwarranted attention and discrimination from police.
Some other videos in this album take on a different visual style than the scenic, realistic shots seen in “Marcy Me,” and while these videos may differ in stylistic presentation, they all seek to comment on deeper social and political themes regarding racial inequality that transcend across time. For instance, “The Story of OJ” music video takes on a more cartoonish appearance by featuring cartoon caricatures of figures such as OJ Simpson, police officers, and the KKK in order to focus on the socioeconomic divides in American society that have become cemented throughout time. Take for example one of the opening shots of this video, voiced over with Jay-Z rapping the words, “House ni**a, don’t fuck with me/ I’m a field ni**a with shined cutlery,” in which we see very stereotypical and at times racist depictions of black people, such as a black man chewing on a large piece of watermelon. By describing the various groups within black culture, and then grouping them all together with these stereotypical depictions, Jay-Z is commenting on the fact that all black people in America, no matter their current position, continue to be haunted by their past cultural prejudices (Fitts). This furthermore touches upon the recurring idea in this album that money drives American society, and that black people as a group have been unfairly cheated out of their fair share of this privilege.
One can see Jay-Z’s frustration with this fact in lines such as, “You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club? Credit. You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America? This how they did it.” In this line, Jay-Z implies that the current positions of racial and ethnic groups in America is inherited from those who came before them, giving an example of Jewish people owning a disproportionate amount of property today because their ancestors were fortunate enough to be efficient in building credit and amassing wealth. Black people, he argues, have been dealt a bad hand left over from the days of slavery and have not been given adequate assistance in “catching up” with the rest of society.
The reaction to this work has been fairly mixed, with some viewing the album as simply a reaction to the cheating allegations presented in Beyonce’s “Lemonade,” while others praise the work as a social commentary on pressing racial issues in America (The Guardian). Either way, this commentary does not come without its fair share of controversy. Some critics have labeled songs like “The Story of OJ” racist for including lines like “You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club? Credit. You ever wonder how Jewish people own all the property in America? This how they did it,” as well as his extensive use of other racial stereotypes throughout the song such as images of the KKK (The Record). While some argue that these stereotypes are offensive and draw away from the entire meaning of equality that Jay-Z is trying to encourage, others claim that he is presenting these stereotypes as a means to start discussion about the socioeconomic inequalities that plague modern day America.
One way of exposing the discrepancies in society, advocates argue, is by
ridiculing in an almost outrageous way some of the injustices occurring throughout society, which is just what Jay-Z does in these controversial videos (Fitts 216). Others see this in a different way, however, and feel that for these racist depictions to be present in a visual album that seeks to push for progress and more widespread equality is instead a step backwards. Furthermore, some critics view these videos from a third perspective in that they look outside of the content of the videos to focus on their intent. These critics claim that the videos were intentionally made to be controversial in order to get as much attention as possible.
They argue that the videos have already served their purpose which was to get people to feel strongly in one way or another. In doing so, the videos inspired people to start talking about the topics presented, and whether they liked them or not, this drives change and progress throughout society. The provocative nature of this album has therefore contributed to the polarizing tendencies and surrounding controversy of Jay Z’s 13th studio album.
Carter, Shawn. “JAY-Z – The Story of O.J.” Genius, 30 June 2017, genius.com/Jay-z-the-story-of-oj-lyrics. This website is simply a way to explore the meaning behind most lyrics to most songs through a combination of artists commentating on their own work, approving analysis from fans, and fans themselves predicting the meaning behind their favorite artists’ lyrics. This source is not directly academically credible in the sense that anyone can contribute, but it is quite helpful to understand the deeper meaning behind the lyrics.
Fitts, Mako. “Drop It Like It’s Hot: Culture Industry Laborers and Their Perspectives on Rap Music Video Production.” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, vol. 8, no. 1, 2008, pp. 211–235., doi:10.2979/mer.2007.8.1.211.
Indiana Department of Corrections. “Juvenile Recidivism.” State of Indiana Government, 2014, http://www.in.gov/idoc/files/2014JuvRecidivismRpt.pdf.
Renshaw, David. “JAY-Z Broke Down The Meaning Of Every Song On 4:44.” The FADER, 30 June 2017, www.thefader.com/2017/06/30/jay-z-breaks-down-444.
White, Miles. From Jim Crow to Jay-Z : Race, Rap, and the Performance of Masculinity. University of Illinois Press, 2011.
Belle, Crystal. “From Jay-Z to Dead Prez.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 45, no. 4, 28 Mar. 2014, pp. 288–300., doi:10.1177/0021934714528953.
Jeffries, Michael P. “Hip-Hop Urbanism Old and New.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 38, no. 2, 27 Feb. 2014, pp. 706–715. Wiley Online Library, doi:10.1111/1468-2427.12106.
Ogbar, Jeffrey O.g. “Slouching Toward Bork.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 30, no. 2, Nov. 1999, pp. 164–183., doi:10.1177/002193479903000202.
Vernallis, Carol. Experiencing Music Video: Aesthetics and Cultural Context. Columbia University Press, 2004.
Zechory, Ilan, et al. “Song Lyrics & Knowledge.” Genius, genius.com/. This website is simply a way to explore the meaning behind most lyrics to most songs through a combination of artists commentating on their own work, approving analysis from fans, and fans themselves predicting the meaning behind their favorite artists’ lyrics. This source is not directly academically credible in the sense that anyone can contribute, but it is quite helpful to understand the deeper meaning behind the lyrics.
- Visual album
- African-American struggle
- Socioeconomic hierarchy
- Roc Nation