“I’m making short term goals when the weather folds.” That line was the beginning of the greatest career in rap history. The Jay Z of 2017 is the same man as the one that uttered those lines at the start of “Can’t Knock The Hustle” in ’96. You can see the evolution in his mindset from then to now a lot clearer when you look at Reasonable Doubt and 4:44 side by side.
“Oh y’all thought I was washed? I’m at the cleaners. Launderin’ dirty money like the Teamsters, huh”
We can finally admit that Magna Carta Holy Grail was a miss. Things weren’t looking too good for Jay-Z on the music front before 4:44 dropped. Beyonce stans were castrating him for inspiring Lemonade. Mumble rap aficionados didn’t see a place for him anymore. Shit, Hov even let his most devoted followers down with lackluster efforts on “Biking” and “Shining” (I rock with Shining heavy personally). His latest run seemingly approached MJ on the Wizards levels of absurdity. He did give us some glimmers of hope. His verses on “I Got The Keys” and “Drug Dealers Anonymous” proved that Jay-Z could still get it done. The question was could he do it for a whole project?
That question was answered on 4:44. Hov leveled up on that album the way that we thought he was going to on MCHG. Stash boxes full of cash got replaced by artwork that increases in value exponentially, I ain’t mad at it at all. If anything, it’s remarkable to see Hov become the latest rapper to drift into reflective mode, following in the footsteps of Nas and Scarface. On the opening track, “Kill Jay Z,” we get a fully formed picture of the man behind this project. Whereas MCHG felt like Jay Z trying to fit into 2013, 4:44 feels like the God MC in his own world. The irony in this album is that Jay Z (now Shawn Carter?) is killing the ego that made him the most successful rapper ever.
“I hope you fools choose to listen, I drop jewels, bust it. These are the rules I follow in my life, you gotta love it”
What about the Jay Z that was making short term goals though? In listening to 4:44, I couldn’t help but think how much Jay’s game has changed in the twenty plus years since Reasonable Doubt released. How ironic is it to hear the man that rapped “See ya later at the crap tables. Meet me by the one that starts a G up” preach about saving money and building credit? The same man that rapped “We don’t lease it we buy the whole thing, as you should” as advice on buying cars is telling us about how he missed out on buying a place in Dumbo. Jay Z’s rags to riches story is the happy ending that we all want. Whether it be hustling or working the graveyard shift, we all want a way to turn our pennies into pensions. To hear him preach in reverse though, blowing money while he’s young and investing once he’s older, draws parallels to almost everyone I’ve ever seen.
From an emotional standpoint, this is just what you expect when comparing a single man in his twenties to a man with three kids approaching 50. Listen to the mack shit he spits on “Cashmere Thoughts”.
How crazy then is it to hear this same man apologize for nearly five minutes to his wife for cheating. The same man that rapped “The only time you love ’em is when ya dick hard” on the above song is now repenting for doing all the shit used to rap about. Imagine listening to that track in ’96, falling into a coma, and waking up to hear “I apologize to all the women whom I toyed with your emotions cause I was emotionless” — you might slip back in.
A lot of artists don’t grow. Either they keep the same subject matter for their whole career or they don’t last long enough to change. We could sit here and go album by album examining how Jay Z has changed over the years. Maybe that’ll be a future article, for now, listen to these albums side by side and appreciate the growth on display. Both are fitting bookends to the greatest career in rap.