4:44: Too little, too late or right on time?

The true and living HOV: While his claims of being the best are debatable, thematically 4:44 is among his most cohesive sets.

The true and living HOV: While his claims of being the best are debatable, thematically 4:44 is among his most cohesive sets.

Is 4:44 opportunistic black nationalist music or is it JAY-Z’s messianic return? Van-Go and Kwanele Sosibo slug it out over the album’s merits and demerits

Kwanele Sosibo: First things first: Do you like the album?

Van G: Nah, dog. I like the beats, man.

KS: I like the beats too. [Producer] No I.D.
is clearly one of the sickest around.

VG: No I.D. mentored Kanye [West], like in a big way. He mentored Nas as well.

KS: No. Common.

VG: Nas, when he came to Def Jam. No I.D took care of him, beats wise.

KS: Did he make a whole album for him?

VG: Nah. It’s more orientating an artist around a certain sound. From No I.D. this [4:44] is more of a backstory of how Kanye was built, if you look at the selection … the records, the samples.

KS: Some type of subliminal message?

VG: No. What it shows is that JAY-Z is capable of cutting off a relationship completely and replanting No I.D. in Kanye’s place. You don’t even miss Kanye. Magna Carta [… Holy Grail] also had minimal Kanye.

KS: No I.D. hooks him up. Do you think Jay delivers on the lyrics? I think he delivers on the messaging. The flows … not so much. Like 50 [Cent] called it a golf course flow. I think thematically it’s a solid album, an album you could play for your son.

VG: Brah, you tripping. It’s the consolidation of black business. It’s the peeking into the personal life, which JAY-Z hasn’t really done, man. If you look at the furthest he has gone in describing his personal life, he did a song for his daughter on the Magna Carta album. Throughout his career, JAY-Z has not been one to talk about Beyoncé. Now he is talking about that and his children, since the Glory song.

KS: I feel like the album is part of some calculated plan. Beyoncé puts out Lemonade and then he comes back. Now it’s a family saga that they have going and they are both profiting from it. He has kids and a wife that he has to remain faithful to, but he hasn’t.

VG: Do you think it’s a gimmick or a piece of art?

KS: Every album is a gimmick in some way. It has to be packaged and sold.

VG: They are selling it hard on the gimmick, which is the apology. Look at the songs that are selling the album. It’s 4:44 [the apology] and The Story of OJ [on building black wealth], and then there’s Bam. The Story of OJ is the black business visionary shit. That’s more like the class is in session: how to navigate a white capitalist world as a black billionaire, or capitalist.

KS: Hasn’t that been his theme all along? Schooling the young ones?

VG: Not black business in the way it has come out here, now. It’s always been Jigga for Jigga. Jigga for Roc Nation [his entertainment company]. Now it’s like, “building the black world”. If you look at what preceded this album as well, it’s like a whole lot of activism. In some ways, JAY-Z’s activism has become an expectation.

KS: Is there some sort of void?

VG: I think #BlackLivesMatter synchronised black music with black protest culture.

KS: Interestingly, Greg Tate, who says JAY-Z is having a political moment because of post-Obama blues, has a theory that artists sometimes lag behind. Like you say, this [#BlackLivesMatter] has been a wake-up call to artists, but it is because of the activism that has been happening on the ground.

VG: For me, the marriage part really dominates this album. But then there are throw-away lines like: You know what’s more important than throwing away money at the strip club?/ Credit [from The Story of OJ]. But how can you compare throwing away money at the strip club and credit? Credit is like a fundamentally anti-black thing because of how hard it is to get.

KS: Are you saying he is just dealing with the symptoms?

VG: He is dealing with the problem in one or two songs, but more than 50% of this album is bad. By bad I mean delivery. I can’t just say it’s a masterpiece in terms of flow or lyrics just because we are in a shit storm.

KS: Why do rappers start rapping more slowly when they get older? They all do it.

VG: No, they don’t.

KS: OK, Black Thought hasn’t done it.

VG: A Tribe Called Quest hasn’t done it. Q-Tip hasn’t done it. Eminem doesn’t do it. Mos Def doesn’t do it. Busta [Rhymes] doesn’t do it.

KS: Ah man, don’t talk about A-class rappers; I’m talking about the fluff. Why would someone like JAY-Z go from somewhat of an intricate flow to a halftime flow? When last was he innovative?

VG: Smile is the classic on this album. [Cues track.] Look at how he opens up.

KS: But it’s a classic because of what he is
saying.

VG: It’s because of how he has packaged this flow. On this song he is doper than anybody in the game right now. The other shit he wins because he is JAY-Z.

KS: Do you think him talking about his mother’s sexuality is something he should be applauded about?

VG: Yeah. In terms of his bravery, yes.

KS: A friend of mine was talking about how Joey Badass is going for broke in terms of the content and how it is political. I don’t agree.

VG: What? It’s not clever enough?

KS: He hasn’t lived enough to know how to say things that matter in a unique way, which makes 4:44 an important album in that way. There is a void.

VG: This is the first period in hip-hop when the older guys are doper than the younger ones. Hip-hop is 40-something years old. Throughout that period, the turn of the style has brought on the doper MC. Now you flip
it to J Cole and them, where there is a very emotionally confident style. Rap had a very low EQ [emotional intelligence quotient] for a long time. There were a lot of things people couldn’t say because of the way the walls were built in the house. Issues like homophobia, money, misogyny, masculinity. We have entered the era of emotional confidence, but with that has come the erosion of technical ability.

KS: Are you saying it’s less of a vocal-based style?

VG: Even the guys that are doing mumble rap now have mastered the staccato flows, but there, there has been an erosion of the content. JAY-Z on this album tries very hard not to flow like any of these new cats. Not even J Cole or Kendrick [Lamar] with the staccato. But let’s just address the fact that JAY-Z got killed by Damian Marley on his own album.

KS: But Damian has been doing that.

VG: JAY-Z has a reputation of being killed on his own album.

KS: I don’t get how Bam fits in together, conceptually. The hook is a cobble. He’s just rehashing some old reggae classic choruses.

VG: Jay failed to do the reggae thing.

KS: I think on this album, it is the persona that wins it, plus that long absence.

VG: But to be real, Jigga is the king of slow flows. Him and 50 came up with some of the best slow flows, in terms of what the slow flow did for the culture. The Blueprint or Get Rich or Die Tryin’. They made this thing commercial, in a big way.

KS: Do you think that was the devolution of MCs?

VG: Rapping now has to come with a
catchiness.

KS: So you blame trap music for the
devolution?

VG: I do. Mumble rap. But the devolution also has a moment when Drake admitted to stealing people’s flows.

KS: Do you think 4:44 is hip-hop as adult contemporary music?

VG: If that’s the case, I say OK. Because when you get older, you ain’t worried about that flow, that catchy shit. You want clever lyrics. You want the feeling that 50 describes, on the golf course, playing this shit on your golf cart.

KS: I think the videos are a flip of that theory, hip-hop as high art.

VG: Yes, for adult consumption. He can try whatever he wants, though. The best videos are still off Schoolboy Q’s Blank Face album.

KS: TDE [Top Dawg Entertainment] is on top of that.

VG: Top Dawg and Kanye are neighbours. They hang all the time. And 4:44 has [snippets of] those gospel beats from [Kanye West’s] The Life of Pablo style. If you listen to the content, Kanye has put a whole lot of his life on that album, and his struggles with the fashion industry. Now JAY-Z puts all his struggles with the Roc Nation thing. JAY-Z is a leech. His whole career is based on that.

KS: Did he jack his old friend Jaz-O’s style?

VG: Not only that. He rode Pharrell [Williams]. He rode Kanye’s style [the soul]. He rode the Timbaland wave when it was high. He rode Frank Lucas’s wave when that movie [American Gangster] came out. And now he is riding the Lemonade wave. Without Beyoncé, this shit is not that effective.

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011.
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