Jay-Z 4:44 Roc Nation / UMG
Ten years ago this October, the pay-what-you-like release of Radiohead’s In Rainbows hinted at new paradigms to come in music distribution. The seemingly anti-capitalist move promised a quasi-utopian, fan-friendly future where artists could connect directly with their listeners rather than through record labels or other such corporate intermediaries. This, of course, was before TIDAL came along.
A general unwillingness on the part of people to abandon piracy and materially support artistry led to the streaming industrial complex we see today – a tightly spun web of music services backed by Fortune 500 behemoths and venture capitalists. Every time Spotify serves one of its free users an advertisement, it echoes the grim, urban worlds of countless sci-fi features where denizens’ data-mined personal information leads to eerily targeted marketing.
An ad-free platform for paying subscribers (apart from its free trials for Sprint customers), TIDAL takes pride in its public-facing artist ownership approach. When the likes of Beyoncé or Kanye West deliver an exclusive there, the perception we’re meant to have is that the artist directly benefits from the collective monthly pittances of the company’s subscribership. How fitting that the financial relationship between Sprint, TIDAL and Shawn Carter has incestuously birthed the instantaneously platinum Jay-Z full-length 4:44, a million digital copies of which were delivered directly to the people via free download.
There are those who will frown upon the raising of such gory details in an album review. But as Carter has made clear before, he’s “a business, man”. The infotainment of 4:44 finds him delivering messages of black empowerment through the lens of commerce, with seminar-quality lessons about credit, spending and generational wealth straight outta the hotel near the airport. On The Story of O.J., he assumes this role of keynote speaker with unapologetic ease, frowning upon Instagram showiness – “Y’all on the ‘Gram holding money to your ear / There’s a disconnect, we don’t call that money over here” – while boasting of his exponentially fruitful investments in modern art. If being lectured by a multi-millionaire about why you’re still poor is your fetish, there you go.
Fortunately, the dryer bits of 4:44 find gratifying counterpoints in No I.D.’s immaculate beats. Enjoying a career resurgence following his impressive work on Vince Staples’ 2016 double LP Summertime 06, the veteran producer provides warm beds of fractured soul, rugged percussion and boom-bap revivalism here. Paired with a flawless Frank Ocean hook, the sampling of Nina Simone’s classic Baltimore rendition for Caught Their Eyes creates a beauteous funk-reggae fusion, though Carter regrettably uses it to kvetch about the folks (mis)managing Prince’s estate. A much-needed multi-level call for unity (“Nobody wins when the family feuds!”), Family Feud takes a minimalist approach with its persistent background vocal loop and playful filter work.
At a time when the fate of lyricism appears to rest on the shoulders of middleweights J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, Carter still manages to get a few licks in. Though his delivery now hints at lethargy, he lands body blows on both Kanye West and Eric Benet on Kill Jay Z, the first with defensive vigour, the second with self-deprecating simplicity. Indeed, the biggest target here is himself, laid bare and laid out on the confessional title track and the impactful Smile where Jay refers to his mother coming out as gay and raps, “Cried tears of joy when you fell in love / Don’t matter to me if it’s a him or her”. These moments create emotional connections between artist and listener. And that’s something genuine that sponsorship money can’t buy.