The conversation surrounding the release of Jay-Z’s new album 4:44 has been centered on its vulnerability and depth, so eloquently woven around the soulful beats of the legendary producer No I.D. For years Jay has always given us conceptual pieces of work with refreshing layers of thought provoking details to unpack. In the era of mumble rappers and sixteen bar verses more focused on punchlines than crafty transitions, he once again gives Hip-Hop culture not necessarily what the masses want, more so what the masses need. In this album we don’t see Jay-Z, Jigga or Hov, we get one of the most honest views of Shawn Carter.
For those of us who aren’t new here, those of us who don’t just see him as Beyoncé’s husband; it’s nothing new. We saw the vulnerability on Reasonable Doubt, we were able to get past the surface level braggadocio of the 90’s to see his coming of age, one many of us translated into our own lives. We heard tracks from The Dynasty album like, “This can’t be life” and “Soon you’ll understand,” that seldom get their just-due commercially but remain heavy B-Side gems. He gave us the more nefarious side of things with the Pharrell Williams produced, “I know” from American Gangster (Look, Pharrell was around way before the “Happy” song people!). While these songs evoked untapped emotions, “Song Cry” has been the pinnacle of Black male vulnerability with a love story that rides the roller coaster from innocence to painful indifference. He’s created this moments that give us time to pause and relish in the idea.
While it may seem normal to pull all ones skeletons out of the closet for public display, the tact and poise to tip-toe this line has always worked for him.
We will see a barrage of think-pieces centered on his emotions, but it was the last song on the album which has resonated with me the most.
“Legacy” is the culminating anthem, as his daughter opens the track saying, “Daddy, what’s a will?” followed by sample of Donny Hathaway’s “One day we’ll all be free.” Within 15 seconds I knew this song would stay on repeat as his cadence and delivery was something new, almost as if he’s just talking to us; paired with the muted trumpet, it felt like the scene from Fade to Black when he pulled the Gucci Bucket hat over his face.
It’s an ode to progress, in a time when progress is a very relative and fluid term. While some may think Hip-Hop is only sex, drugs and alcohol, this song and the entire album dispel those myths; Hip-Hop music is not a monolith, it can be beautiful, ugly and complicated all in a sixteen bar verse. I think about my own friends and family as Jay raps about “spreading money across families” and “generational wealth,” but as much as I shy away from being caught up in the numbers, the disparities are staggering.
Average wealth for white families is seven times higher than average wealth for black families. Worse still, median white wealth (wealth for the family in the exact middle of the overall distribution—wealthier than half of all families and less-wealthy than half) is twelve times higher than median black wealth. More than one in four black households have zero or negative net worth, compared to less than one in ten white families without wealth, which explains the large differences in the racial wealth gap at the mean and median. (Economic Policy Institute)
He goes on to say, “…That’s major, its like the Negro Leagues/There was a time when America wouldn’t let us ball/those times are now back its now called Afro-Tech.”
A clever analogy showing the relative nature of being a black baseball player in the early part of the 20th century and being a black tech professional in 2017. Tech companies show a strong statistical hiring bias against black people, so much so that a conference was founded aimed at getting more black people into the industry.
“But technical workers at Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter, according to the companies’ diversity reports, are on average 56 percent white, 37 percent Asian, 3 percent Hispanic and 1 percent black.”(The New York Times)
As much as this may seem like a challenge, it’s more of an opportunity for tech companies to learn and grow. Whether it’s a pipeline problem with getting middle school students engaged in STEM programs or lack of accountability for hiring managers, the problem is more visible now than it’s ever been.
As much as civil rights issues have played a constant role in my life, there was this melancholy sense of relief while listening to “Legacy.” I remember sitting in a Starbucks with one of my mentors, who just so happens to be an older white guy. We were discussing issues of race as we often do, and I remember saying, “I wonder what it’s like to not have that constant fight, to not always be pushing for equality and equity.” There’s this innate sense of awareness to general issues that people who look like me face on a daily basis, whether overtly or covertly. We are a result of our own experiences, as such I’m mindful at all times whether I’m reading a chyron on a television screen about gun violence or “ironically” being the only person questioned about where I’m going by security guards outside of a black tie event.
I binge watched the original Netflix series Dear White People and there were many valid issues raised, but one of the most poignant lines came from the 5th episode when one of the characters says, “Sometimes being carefree and black is an act of revolution.”
What. A. Concept.
As the chorus plays on “Legacy” it posits this attainable sense of hope for the future. As cognizant as I am of the struggles black folks in America face, there are times when being “carefree” works. As much as vulnerability and awareness are necessary at times, being in the moment has its advantages. This took shape over the weekend with good friends, a bottle of wine and an auxiliary cord at a notable restaurant downtown known for its quaint atmosphere. I handed my phone to the bartender and asked him to press play; 4:44 eventually erupted from the speakers.