Until 4:44, Jay-Z’s albums could be understood as an indictment of the immorality of capitalism by a man luxuriating in its fruits. Jay-Z argued that there was something revolutionary in this, in a black man born in the projects proving himself a better entrepreneur than white men born into plenty, as if to suggest the infinite human potential destroyed by the circumstances he escaped. He was right.
Jay-Z used the terms of finance to describe the drug trade—referring to his crew as his “staff,” his organization as his “conglomerate,” smoothly transitioning from acknowledging the violence of the trade to comparing it to the stock market (“drug prices up and down like it’s Wall Street homes, but this is worse than the Dow Jones, your brains are now blown”), and connecting the inequality of the system that shaped his life with his determination to triumph over it.
He saw clearly that his pursuit of success visited countless cruelties and indignities upon himself and those around him, and that his triumph would come at unimaginable cost. Perhaps the one thing he didn’t expect was that it would have a happy ending, one with wealth and family, fame and fatherhood.
The contradiction of that transition is that while Shawn Corey Carter’s politics have simplified in disappointing ways, that’s come with an emotional maturity Jay-Z never had. On Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z’s ideal relationship was one in which fidelity was optional; on 4:44, Carter raps movingly about the devastating realization that someday, his children will learn of his transgressions. He imagines himself on the other end of the knife he used to stab the director Lance “Un” Rivera in 1999. He gives his mother space on the album to speak about the years she spent hiding her sexual orientation.