Jay-Z released his 13th studio album on June 30th exclusively on Tidal and it is probably his most lyrical and important project to date- an amazing feat for a rapper in the twilight of his career. One of Jay’s most famous lyrics is the infamous “I dumb down my lyrics to double my dollars,” a motto that summed up a lot of people’s frustration with mainstream Hip-Hop. Many of us who love Jay-Z always knew Hov was holding back something. Yes, he dropped double and even triple entendres with ease, but sometimes we wished Jay would go deeper. On 4:44, Jay delivers lyricism that made many casual fans feel like he had invented a new type of rap, referred to as “grown man rap.” Aside from the fact that there have been many “grown man rap” albums released in the recent past, the fact that the world’s biggest Hip-Hop artist dipped his toe into the pool is notable. I hope the success of Jay’s album inspires more artists and fans to value lyricism again.
We are at an interesting point in Hip-Hop’s lifetime. The most popular rappers are less than lyrical or just down right lyric-less. We have an array of trap and mumble rappers who, while they are entertaining, rarely leave us with much to think about. And, for a long time it seemed like that is what casual fans wanted. I have even heard the phrase “no one wants to need a dictionary to listen to rap,” a total shame. Hip-Hop has had many incarnations, but probably the most important advancements we have made as a culture are lyrically. The first MCs to use multi-syllabic rhymes, double entendres, complicated rhyme schemes, etc. were pioneers. They advanced the culture and pushed the boundaries of what was expected from a fledgling genre.
Back to Jay’s album. One of the first things I noticed about this album is the lack of a bunch of club songs. These really are not party songs. And, Jay is known for dropping club hits that dominate the radio. He took a deliberate approach on 4:44 that focused more on the stories he wanted to tell, messages he wanted to deliver. Its obvious that this proved to be a winning strategy. The immediate response to the album across the internet was overwhelmingly positive. Unlike his last release, Jay does not have people questioning his age, asking questions about whether rappers can continue to drop top notch material in the advanced stages of their career or questioning Jay’s chosen subject matter.
As a lyrical MC myself, I am hopeful that Jay’s album will inspire a new wave of appreciation for lyricism among mainstream fans and rappers. Hip-Hop is a revolutionary culture and has been used to deliver important messages to our generations. But, mainstream rap has lost its connection to lyricism and revolution. People would rather listen to songs about partying, spending money and drugs. While these are themes that have always been present in rap music, they are overemphasized now. Perhaps Jay’s album will spark a renaissance.
Like many less than mainstream releases in the recent past, Jay’s album follows the one rapper, one producer model. This model has been done in Hip-Hop almost from the very beginning of the genre and has had many lives throughout the history of the genre. But, I will admit that Jay-Z embracing that model is very meaningful. Jay is sending a signal to the industry. He is giving us the blueprint (again). The one rapper, one producer model offers each artist the opportunity to focus on their strength and put together a more cohesive project than if the MC worked with various producers. No ID, the producer, was able to create an aesthetic on this album that is consistent and impactful.
While Jay-Z did not invent “grown man rap” or lyricism in Hip-Hop, he is doing us all a favor by making both popular and mainstream. This album is a true triumph in both production and lyricism and I hope it inspires a generation of MCs to embrace the roots of Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop needs a renaissance. Art should reflect the times. Most of the nation is locked in a political battle that will determine the future of this country. Why should Hip-Hop be focused on extraneous and often meaningless subjects? We need dope MCs to drop albums like 4:44 where the messages are potent and numerous. Jay-Z has always been an aspirational figure in Hip-Hop. He has inspired many people with his music to want more for their lives and to achieve at the highest levels. He is an embodiment of Black excellence. Let us hope that more MCs seek to achieve excellence like 4:44.