By the time summer 2017 rolled around, Shawn Carter seemed like he needed some lemonade in his life. Not that the rapper better known as Jay-Z was thirsty, mind you; the music and fashion mogul could have Champagne fountains installed in every hallway of his New York City home. But after Beyoncé, his wife of nine years, released the powerfully resonant Lemonade, a stunning 2016 collection that largely deals with her famous husband's alleged infidelity, Jay's reputation was a little dehydrated.
Had 2017 rolled around while the world was still singing the praises of Jay-Z's last album, things would certainly be different. But music fans were trying to forget Magna Carta Holy Grail, his colossally disappointing cell phone commercial, err, album, from 2013.
So in June 2017, Jay-Z released 4:44, which isn't only a return to his stellar form (and included another awkward stab at a mobile promotional tie-in); it's far and away his finest record since 2006's Kingdom Come, and according to many, 2003's seminal The Black Album.
Though it's an intensely personal record packed with apologetic confessions and firm social stances, 4:44 doesn't play out as a direct response to Lemonade. The invasive manner Jay employs to exorcise a number of demons goes well beyond the response-track emptiness critics and fans likely expected.
As evidenced most notably in the title cut, Jay starkly lays his sins bare ("I apologize, often womanize"). This type of unadorned proclamation is significant in a number of ways, but given the artfully mysterious approach Beyoncé took in her telling, her rapper husband leaving little to the imagination reads like a humbling testament. Yet, had 4:44 been devoted solely to the comings and goings of the Knowles-Carter marital bed, it wouldn't have landed the impact it did. It wouldn't stand shoulder to shoulder with the records that afforded arguably history's biggest rapper his platinum throne.
In "The Story of O.J.," Jay-Z addresses racism with a sharp-elbowed determination that was absent in much of Magna Carta's tone-deaf attempt at performance art. He's wealthy, powerful and, sure, he collects million-dollar art he raps about, but he's still a passionate advocate who has felt the sting of inequality. Refreshingly and forcefully, that zeal has a proper home on this record.
One specific line in that song ("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") drew criticism for how the Anti-Defamation League felt it played "into deep-seated Anti-Semitic stereotypes," a spokesperson told Rolling Stone . With the same no-bull way he delivered the line in question, Jay-Z dismissed the criticism, citing the lyric as an exaggeration similar to the exaggerations of black stereotypes he often employs.
Thanks to the impactful, surprising relevance of 4:44, don't need Jay-Z-flavored Lemonade. We just needed him to pour out his own truth.
Jay-Z performs with Vic Mensa on Nov. 7 at 8 p.m. American Airlines Center, 2500 Victory Ave., Dallas. Details.