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Feeling it

Owen Duff

June 2017






A car loses value the minute it leaves the dealership; the contents of a private life depreciate the moment they are spoken, the minute they leave the mouth. In rap, an increasingly confessional genre, no one has observed this rule more carefully than Jay-Z. For the past two decades, he has written candidly about his professional life as a dealer and rapper, but the subjects most often equated with private life, and maybe identity in general—childhood, family, marriage, sexuality, emotions—have played a comparatively minor role in his work. In 2006, he rapped on “Beach Chair” about driving through a rough neighborhood in a Benz and letting “the wheels give a glimpse of hope of one’s grind”. The wheels were a metonym for his wealth. In retrospect, though, they were just as easily a metaphor for himself: we have heard over a dozen Jay-Z albums to date, but the identity of Shawn Carter has remained something like the gleam in a Benz rim.

The premise of 4:44, then, his latest album, is that Jay-Z is finally allowing himself to share a part of his private, inner life. Producers have been trying to summon this kind of material from him for a while: in the Watch the Throne documentary, there’s a scene of Jay-Z recording his verse on “Why I Love You”, a song about betrayal and fratricide. The camera turns to Kanye West, who co-produced the track and is watching his mentor work, and he exclaims joyfully: “That’s emotion!” In an interview with Rap Radar, Jay-Z shared a similar story of producer No I.D., who scored the entirety of 4:44, demoing the title track to him one evening and studying his face expectantly. “4:44” samples a Hannah Williams song about infidelity, and Jay-Z was rumoured to have been unfaithful; the producer was expecting some kind of effusion. Nothing came. But, as the story goes, they parted company and later that night the rapper awoke and recorded some of what would become the apology to his wife that “4:44” is.

He also reflects throughout the album on the state of African American culture and business, and gives advice on how they might be improved: he shares investment strategies, observes the importance of credit, expresses disapproval of the “money phone” meme, and envisions intergenerational wealth among black families. The confessional material, then, is matched with some prescription. But these have been standard subjects in Jay-Z albums for a while, and selling “game for $9.99” has long been Jay-Z’s game. If confession has had no place in his work, that has been part of his appeal: to listen to Jay-Z rap is to observe a mind remarkably at ease with and present to itself. Moral quandaries in his albums are never really quandaries at all, but obstacles, more or less easily overcome. Even on 4:44, the current benchmark for Jay-Z sensitivity, he lets us know he isn’t losing any sleep over his African blood diamonds. That’s life, after all: “winners and losers.”

Which is what makes other parts of 4:44 difficult to listen to: it’s not just that he shares private information that would be difficult for anyone to share—it may not be inherently revelatory, for example, to learn that Jay-Z’s mother was closeted (“Smile”), or that his father had a dependency (“Adnis”), or that Jay-Z cheated on his wife (“4:44”). What is really new and difficult is the way the confessions are sometimes imprecise or self-defeating, an index to the movements of an apparently restless conscience.

On the title track, for example, what he admits to sometimes emerges obliquely, the vessel of his prose tacking headlong into pride or whatever it is that resists contrition. A line like “I seen the innocence leave your eyes / I still mourn this death” is somehow both an admission and extension of guilt, as if adultery were a foregone conclusion, and his only regret was that he had to be the one to teach this to his wife. Innocence is taken for naivety, and later on the idea of fidelity is likened to Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy. In the very song in which he intends an apology, he is in some sense mourning the loss not of trust, but of what could only ever have been an illusion. After admitting to an affair, he imagines Beyoncé’s incredulous response: “You risked that for Blue?” (Blue Ivy Carter is Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s daughter). This verse seems to have come out backwards: is it not rather Blue he has risked for the affair? Maybe the preposition has been misplaced to accommodate the rhyme. Or maybe some words are so difficult to speak they can only be misspoken.

For long term fans, this kind of thing might be difficult to hear: the way Jay-Z has presented himself in his earlier work—his wit, but equally his reserve and detachment, his emotionlessness—has played a part in defining masculinity, or even personhood, for many young people. To accept his latest album may be to relinquish some part of that definition. And while 4:44 does not have a particular agenda regarding transparency and emotional honesty, it is worth noting some of the context of its reception: the generation of rappers that grew up on Jay-Z et al., as if by bioamplification, is probably more skeptical of the inner life and its turmoil than any preceding it, to the point that sending up emotions and exposing them as illusions is almost its exclusive theme. “Feeling”, itself, has somehow become corny. 4:44 might contain a message for that generation, or at least some worthwhile questions. For instance: how might feelings be granted a reality or importance that is not already defined by an alternative? And if there is an answer to this question, is it given to be understood, or felt?


Owen Duff recently completed an M.Phil in Modern Languages at Balliol College, Oxford.