Streaming Consciously: Moonlight, Mona Lisa Smiles and the Evolving Legacy of Jay-Z
“Nobody wins when the family feuds."
Unless we’re talking about the Carter Clan, who’ve now generated three consecutive landmark albums, following a family squabble captured by an elevator security camera. Each initially available only on Tidal, the family streaming service. In this rare case, airing out the family businessman makes for good business, man.
Forty years after Fleetwood Mac first unleashed Rumours, Hov openly addresses what they whisper ‘bout, like what chick he’s with, or his chipper mouth. On “Moonlight”, he even manages to make recording magic while battling a cold, as Stevie Nicks did when cutting her vocal for Fleetwood Mac’s classic “Dreams”.
It will be, or already has been said, in the initial swarm of think-pieces following 4:44’s June 30th release, that this is the first “middle age” or "dad rap" album. We here at Streaming Consciously, figured we’d do us all a favor, by waiting 17 days to opine on it. We did our best to avoid reaction to 4:44 via outside sources, while absorbing it steadily over these past two-and-a-half weeks.
The first? Nah. There’s a growing list of rap albums exploring that topical terrain. Look no further than rival-turned-frienemy/employee Nas. He did so five years ago on Life Is Good, while posing with his ex-wife Kelis’ wedding dress, on the album cover. Jigga even began digging in this dirt himself, over a decade ago, with his initial, inconsistent post-retirement return album, Kingdom Come. But despite all of that, Kelis is not Beyoncé. And Nas is not Jay-Z, at least not in terms of being a musical icon that transcends his genre, while making history, with anywhere near the same level of visibility. So in that sense, 4:44 is certainly the start of something. It could be a new template for middle-aged rap. At the very least, it should be the nouveau blueprint for Jay-Z.
Life is Good was a “divorce album”, a document of marital dissolution like Tunnel of Love, Blood on the Tracks, and Here, My Dear before it. 4:44 is about Jay holding himself accountable. While he and his superstar wife’s recent work takes shape as an ongoing, sometimes painfully public, yet creatively fruitful, form of musical marriage counseling.
Kingdom Come might have given a glimpse into a rap-giant-looks-at-middle-age on “30 Something”, or discussed the pain of a different type of breakup on “Lost One”, but it spends most of its running time declaring “Superman is alive”. 4:44 metaphorically kills off the mythic superhero Jay-Z in this album’s opening scene. By doing so, it begets braver, better art. "Lucky Lefty” makes his own luck, on this lucky thirteenth album.
Jay sounded content to the point of near-boredom on album twelve, Magna Carter Holy Grail, resulting in one of his most forgettable efforts. Perhaps it was rushed out too quickly, on the heels of Watch the Throne's album and world tour. On 4:44 he’s clearly facing personal and professional challenges, summoning his 2017 best self to meet them.
Jay is always gonna give a solid effort, both in creating each new body of work, as well as working the product once its created. But if you've been a Jay fan since Reasonable Doubt, you usually can tell when he's put out a project that he's particularly proud. They're also the ones his fans tend to agree on with him. This feels like one of those instances, It will likely check both boxes by the time its all said and done.
Even the roll-out for 4:44 feels sharper, more secure and strategically staggered then the past few Jay-Z releases. Through 17 days we're only three ("The Story of O.J.", title track and "Bam") in so far, of what we imagine will be thirteen videos and accompanying footnote episodes. These along with Bey's instant-classic "visual album" last year, are the best incentives for a Tidal subscription since Prince's catalog returned to Spotify posthumously. Jay addresses that particular purple power-move to powerful effect on "Caught Their Eyes".
I sat down with Prince, eye to eye
He told me his wishes before he died…
This guy had 'Slave' on his face
You think he wanted the masters with his masters?
You greedy bastards sold tickets to walk through his house
I'm surprised you ain't auction off the casket
But this album is about more than providing answers to tabloid-fodder, or Hov bigging up his art collection and reminding us that he doesn’t write lyrics down. Though he does provide plenty enough of the first one, plus one prominent example each of the other two, here. Still it's also about wisdom gained through age and experience, entrepreneurialism, black excellence, American idealism, black identity while still wrestling with the tentacles of white supremacy in that same America, the politics of the entertainment industry, the richness of African-American cultural contributions to said industry, sexuality, gender politics, friendship, family, legacy, marriage and parenthood.
The rapping is startlingly unadorned and conversational. Jay made a career of flowing with a casual effortlessness. But there were still some bells and whistles to it. Not here. Is this because he can no longer pull-off that nimble, double-time, Tetris-bounce style of rhyme? Or does he just know he doesn't have to do that anymore, so instead feels free to speak his mind, while taking his time? Who's to say. Either way, you'd be hard-pressed to find much overdubbing. There's no "Tupac"-ing, with stacked, multi-tracked vocals. This sounds more like Jay-Z on his 2001 Unplugged with The Roots, delivered from a front-porch rocking chair. Hov even has a few "get off my lawn!" old-man moments here. Yet they sound more like an uncle's unfiltered musings, after a two-finger pour, than the bitter brow-beating scolds of an aging rapper.
Production duties, handled for the first time in Jay's career solely by one producer, Chicago veteran No I.D. (of early Common Sense-era Common fame), is purposely sparse. The music moves slowly, soulfully, with lots of open space for Jay's thoughts to roam. The sample sources are largely old classics, with female vocalists, and a sanctifying thread throughout. We go from Lauryn Hill and her spiritual Godmother Nina Simone, to the Clark Sisters, to Sister Nancy, to Sister Yoncé. Guaranteed, that is no accident, on the part of No I.D., Jay-Z, or of course, Bey.
4:44 successfully shows the breadth and depth of a man whose lived 47 years, spending his last two decades as a Teflon Don-like rap icon. Hov always told us “I brag different”. This is still hip-hop, which is built on that. And he still does. This is demonstrated most demonstratively on “Bam”. "I'll Bobby Shmurda anybody ya heard of" is a six-word flex as perfect as you'll hear this year. It might be my favorite since Method Man said "We at odds 'till we even", on Wu-Tang Forever, twenty years ago.
Despite the sprawling subject matter, Jay keeps it trump-tight for his first album of the Trump era. 4:44 has only 10 tracks, clocking in at 36 minutes and 11 seconds. Perhaps taking note from our current album of the year at the halfway mark, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., Jay-Z pares this album down to the bone. All killer, no filler. And while he didn’t quite make Thriller, 4:44 is superior to any of his catalog's glorified seat-fillers. Where it stands among the cream of his crop, is a question that cannot be answered, only raised, after 17 days.
Wudder Weight: Fo’-Point-Fo’-Fo’ out of Five
The list we've built thus far, while reserving a right to add to it as time marches on....
Cautionary Tales/Collateral Damage Caught in the Headlights of Jay-Z Side-Swipes:
Entertainment Lawyer and Publisher Londell McMillan
Al Sharpton’s Selfie
Bill Cosby's Pills
Steve Harvey's Suit
50 Cent/Floyd Mayweather
La La Land
The New “Most Interesting Man in the World”
Shout-Outs/Sampled Voices on Jay’s Most Soulful Document Since Blueprint:
Nina Simone (TWICE)
Lauryn Hill (Both)
The Clark Sisters
Sister Nancy (also with a “Bam” video cameo)
Hannah Williams & The Affirmations
Damien “Junior Gong” Marley
Blue Ivy Carter
Additions to Jay’s Ever-Expanding Resume of Dual Meaning/Double Entendre:
Eyeful/Eifel, possible Watch The Throne/Hilton double-whammy on Paris part.
Liquid Gold/Pigeonholed/Kitchen Closed
Bathing Ape/Gorilla/Glorified Seat Filler
Invincible/Dropped out of school, lost your principles/principals
Hairpin/Trigger your Roots
The entire eye motif on the first verse of Caught Their Eyes
The entire hair device on verse two of “Bam”
The string of pregnancy imagery at the end of verse one on “Marcy Me”
Ace of Spade/Look what it did to Boston
I’m a Sufi to goofies, I can prolly speak Farsi
Finish your breakfast, you egged Solange on.
bye, you/bayou (flipped differently than 'by you' in ’03 on “What We Do”)
a hundred-percent, black-owned champagne, and we merrily eatin' off those streams
their grass is greener, 'cause they always rakin' in mo'
Gram going ham, giving information to the pork, that's all spam
Blue’s tooth/Blue tooth (arguably a triple or even quadruple use)
L-Boogie “Reciprocity” Trophy for ‘Most Ambitious Cramming of a Ten-Cent Word into a Song Lyric’:
Frank Ocean slipping ‘solipsistic’ twice into his “Caught Their Eyes” hook.
Most Unforeseeable Revelation:
No, not Jay admitting to a moment of lustful weakness outside his marriage. We kinda knew that the day we saw those elevator shots. Or at latest, the day Lemonade dropped.
But who knew, or even bothered to consider, Jay’s mother Gloria Carter revealing herself to be a long-time-closeted-but-no-longer-so lesbian? Most surprising revelation of homosexuality on a hip-hop record since 50 Cent’s “growing up I was confused, my mommy kissing a girl” opening line on “Hate or Love It” in '04. Of course, Jay’s rhyme about Gloria only held that crown for about a week, before Tyler the Creator upped the ante. Or did he? Who knows. Tyler and Odd Future as a collective, are an enigma.
As for the matriarch of the Carter Clan, her poem at the end of "Smile" will not make you wonder if Maya Angelou's been resurrected, but at the same time it's kind of sweet that her son gives her this space, while helping share the story and her truth.
Line most ripe for a feast of faux-controversy and online outrage:
The Jewish line on “Story of O.J.”. Since I’m not of Semitic heritage, I should probably recuse myself from the convo when it comes to discussing what's deemed offensive. But from the dribs and drabs I’ve seen about it on social-media, I wish we could at least be a little bit intellectually honest about what he meant, in context of encouraging black people to pool resources in the industry they dominate, similar to how their Jewish brethren have. That sounded more like a tip-of-the-Yankee-fitted, from one of New York City’s most storied ethnic minorities to another. Game recognize game. There's too much real racism in this country right now to spend any time worrying about this, in my humble and admittedly unqualified opinion.
The “You crazy for this one, Rick!” production award:
Veteran Chicago Board Overload, No I.D., the producer or co-producer of every track on this album, outdoes himself, with the RZA-Wu-Tang-Forever-later-Kanye-Blueprint-borrowed sped-up sample of Nina Simone’s version of Randy Newman’s “Baltimore” on “Caught Their Eyes”. The way he gets that hiccup effect via vocal chop gives me life. That and the Prince verse, are big reasons why it’s already one my favorite late-period Hov album cuts, on par with “Trouble” or “Say Hello”.
Quoteworthy Casual Carter Asides Well on Their Way to Becoming Memes:
“Coulda bought a house in DUMBO before It was DUMBO”
“You know what’s more important than throwing money away at the strip club? Credit.”
“You can’t heal what you never reveal”
“Old nigg@z, stop actin’ brand new, like 2Pac didn’t have a nose ring too”
"I'll Bobby Shmurda, anybody ya heard of"
"OJ like, 'I'm not black, I'm OJ"...okay"
"Would you rather be old, rich 'me', or new 'you'?"