by Zach Johnson | Sat., Jan. 27, 2018 5:00 AM
Jay-Z turned lemons into Lemonade with his 13th studio album.
4:44, first released on TIDAL in partnership with Sprint, features 10 original recordings, many of which were seemingly written in response to his wife Beyoncé's deeply personal visual album. The trailer for the album featured cameos from Oscar-winning actors Mahershala Ali, Danny Glover and Lupita Nyong'o, and the album itself features tracks with Beyoncé (who is also a co-writer), Frank Ocean and Damian Marley—as well as the rapper's mom, Gloria Carter. iHeartRadio's The Beat shared exclusive audio of Jay-Z explaining the meaning behind his lyrics.
Jay-Z is the most nominated artist at the 2018 Grammys, where his most personal album yet will compete in such categories as Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Song of the Year.
1. "Kill Jay-Z"
Jay-Z referenced his famous elevator fight with sister-in-law Solange Knowles after the 2014 Met Gala. "You egged Solange on / Knowin' all along /All you had to say you was wrong," he rapped. The altercation, which was widely rumored to have been about fashion designer Rachel Roy, led Jay-Z to a realization: "But you gotta do better, boy, you owe it to Blue / You had no father, you had the armor / But you got a daughter, gotta get softer." Seemingly confirming that he did indeed cheat on his wife, he also name dropped Eric Benét, who split from Halle Berry in 2003 amid rumors of infidelity. "You almost went Eric Benét / Let the baddest girl in the world get away," he rapped, later reminding fans, "Never go Eric Benét." The song is "not to be taken literal," the 47-year-old rapper told iHeartRadio. "It's really about the ego. It's about killing off the ego, so we can have this conversation in a place of vulnerability and honesty."
Jay-Z even calls out his frenemy Kanye West, rapping, "I know people backstab you, I feel bad too / But this 'f--k everybody' attitude ain't natural / But you ain't the same, this ain't KumbaYe / But you got hurt because you did cool by 'Ye / You gave him 20 million without blinkin' / He gave you 20 minutes on stage, f-- was he thinkin'?/ 'F--kin' wrong with everybody?' is what you sayin' / But if everybody's crazy, you're the one that's insane."
2. "The Story of O.J."
O.J. Simpson, the former football player who was accused and acquitted of killing two people, served as Jay-Z's inspiration. "O.J. like, 'I'm not black, I'm O.J.' / OK / House n---a, don't f--k with me," he said. "I'm a field n---a with shined cutlery / Gold-plated quarters where the butlers be."
"'The Story of OJ' is really a song about we as a culture, having a plan, how we're gonna push this forward," Jay-Z said. "We all make money, and then we all lose money, as artists especially. But how, when you have some type of success, [we can] transform that into something bigger."
"Financial freedom my only hope / F--k livin' rich and dyin' broke / I bought some artwork for 1 million / Two years later, that s--t worth 2 million / Few years later, that s--t worth 8 million / I can't wait to give this s--t to my children / Y'all think it's bougie, I'm like, it's fine / But I'm tryin' to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99," Jay-Z rapped in the song. "I turned that two to a four, four to an eight / I turned my life into a nice first week release date / Y'all out here still takin' advances, huh? / Me and my n---as takin' real chances, uh / Y'all on the Gram holdin' money to your ear / There's a disconnect, we don't call that money over here, yeah."
3. "Smile" (feat. Gloria Carter)
"There are gonna be bad times, and those bad times can do two things: They can get you in a place where you're stuck in a rut," Jay-Z said of the song, which features Stevie Wonder's vocals, "or it can make your future that much better because you've experienced these things."
"Bad times turn to good memories, smile / Even when I'm gone and you remember me, smile / Good times never fade away, smile," they rap in the chorus. "Even if I'm not with you here today, smile / Good morn' or evening, friends / Smile / Here's your friendly announcer / Smile."
The song ends with a spoken word performance by his mom.
"Mama had four kids, but she's a lesbian / Had to pretend so long that she's a thespian / Had to hide in the closet, so she medicate / Society shame and the pain was too much to take / Cried tears of joy when you fell in love / Don't matter to me if it's a him or her / I just wanna see you smile through all the hate," Jay-Z raps in one verse. "Marie Antoinette, baby, let 'em eat cake."
4. "Caught Their Eyes" (feat. Frank Ocean)
"'Caught the Eye' is a song that's dealing with just being aware of your surroundings," Jay-Z told iHeartRadio. "There's a line in it, and it says, 'Your body language is all remedial / How could you see the difference between you and I?' Just being so sharp about your surroundings." After that particular line, he rapped, "My crash course was much tougher / Around friends who kill they friends / Then hug their friends' mothers / And show up at the funeral, complete with blank stares / Invisible ink, I had to read things that wasn't there / Memories may sneak down my cheek / But I could see a side eye in my sleep." In the chorus, Ocean sang, "Ready for it, deep breath, fill up the void / Eyes open them up, check out the cords / Still stinging from tears, they try to see you / I'm ready for earth, ready for real / Solipsistic admit it, I see you there / So it seems, so you seem / I can't tell if you're image or are just the flare / In my dreams, in my dreams."
"'4:44' is a song that I wrote, and it's the crux of the album, just right in the middle of the album. And I woke up, literally, at 4:44 in the morning, 4:44 a.m., to write this song. So, it became the title of the album and everything," Jay-Z told iHeartRadio. "It's the title track because it's such a powerful song, and I just believe one of the best songs I've ever written."
"I suck at love, I think I need a do-over / I will be emotionally available if I invited you over / I stew over what if you over my s--t?" he rapped, which many saw as his response to Beyoncé's "Sorry." ("He always got them f--king excuses / I pray to the Lord you reveal what his truth is," Beyoncé sang in 2016. "I left a note in the hallway / By the time you read it, I'll be far away.")
As for his infidelity, he rapped, "And if my children knew / I don't even know what I would do / If they ain't look at me the same / I would probably die with all the shame / 'You did what with who?' / What good is a ménage à trois when you have a soulmate? / 'You risked that for Blue?'"
"I harass you out in Paris / Please come back to Rome / You make it home / We talked for hours when you were on tour," the Grammy winner rapped. "Please pick up the phone, pick up the phone / Said don't embarrass me instead of be mine / That was my proposal for us to go steady / That was your 21st birthday / You mature faster than me / I wasn't ready / So I apologize."
"I apologize to all the woman whom I / Toyed with you emotions because I was emotionless / I apologize 'cuz at your best you are love / And because I fall short of what I say I'm all about/ Your eyes leave with the soul that your body once housed / And you stare blankly into space / Thinking about all the time you wasted in on all the basic s--t so," Jay-Z continued. "I apologize."
"4:44" also mentioned Beyoncé's miscarriages and the recent birth of their twins. "I apologize, often womanize / Took for my child to be born / See through a woman's eyes / Took for these natural twins to believe in miracles / Took me too long for this song / I don't deserve you," Jay-Z rapped. "So I apologize / I've seen the innocence / Leave your eyes / I still mourn this death," he rapped. "I apologize for all the stillborns / 'Cuz I wasn't pressing / Your body wouldn't accept it."
Kim Burrell lent her vocals to the track.
6. "Family Feud"
"'Family Feud' is about separation within the culture. Like, new rappers fighting with old rappers, saying all these things," he said. "So, the line is, 'Nobody wins when the family feuds.'" The song references "Becky"—the same "Becky" from Beyoncé's "Sorry," perhaps? "He only want me when I'm not there," Beyoncé sang in 2016. "He better call Becky with the good hair."
Beyoncé is credited as a co-writer on "Family Feud," in which she also lends her vocal talents. Roy, for her part, previously denied rumors of an illicit romance with with Jay-Z, as did British pop star Rita Ora, the rap superstar's former protégé. "Yeah, I'll f--k up a good thing if you let me / Let me alone, Becky," Jay-Z rapped. "A man that don't take care his family can't be rich."
Jay-Z also name-dropped Bill Cosby, Diddy, Biggie Smalls and Al Sharpton, rapping, "I'm tryna get these n---as with no stripes to be official / Y'all think small, I think Biggie / Y'all whole pass is in danger, 10 Mississippi / Al Sharpton in the mirror takin' selfies / How is him or Pill Cosby s'posed to help me? / Old n---as never accepted me / New n---as is the reason I stopped drinkin' Dos Equis / We all lose when the family feuds / What's better than one billionaire? Two / I'll be damned if I drink some Belvedere while Puff got Cîroc / Y'all need to stop."
7. "Bam" (feat. Damian Marley)
"The song 'Bam' with Damian Marley, it's just jammin'—it's just like the song," Jay-Z said. "But it's secretly Shawn Carter saying, 'Man, you need a bit of ego.' It was because of me and the things that I've done; this is Jay-Z saying you needed a bit of ego for us to arrive at this point."
"Uh, n---as is skippin' leg day just to run they mouth / I be skippin' leg day, I still run the world / I pressed ahead of your team with one finger curled / I'll line you all up with one finger wave," he rapped in the song, which samples Sister Nancy. "Make n---as weave, n---as is out here fake / Laced front to the back, don't front / Y'all gonna make me wig, I'ma give y'all what you want."
"The hook is 'We stuck in La La Land / Even if we win, we gonna lose.' It's like a subtle nod to La La Land winning the Oscar, and then having to give it to Moonlight," Jay-Z told iHeartRadio. "It's really a commentary on the culture and where we're going." In his critique of young rappers, in which the rap icon didn't name any names, Jay-Z spat, "Look, I know killers, you no killer, huh? / Bathing Ape maybe not a gorilla, huh? / Glorified seat filler, huh? / Stop walkin' 'round like y'all made Thriller, huh? / Fake Dracos all in the videos / We sure, we shoot 'em in my city, though / I don't post no threats on the internet / I just pose a threat, blame Lenny S for that / I don't be on the 'Gram goin' ham / Givin' information to the pork, that's all spam / Please don't talk about guns / That you ain't never gon' use / Y'all always tell on y'all self / I'm just so f--king confused."
9. "Marcy Me"
"'Marcy Me' is a nostalgic walk through Marcy, and it's about that hopefulness, that feeling of 'Man, can I really do this? Can I really be one of the biggest artists in the world?'" he said. "You have these dreams, 'Can I be one of the biggest basketball players?' We have these dreams."
Jay-Z, who grew up in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, rapped, "Old Brooklyn not this new s--t, shift feel like a spoof / Fat laces in your shoe I'm talking busting off the roof / Hold a uzi vertical, let the thing smoke / Y'all flirting with death I be winking through the scope / Shout out to all the murderers turned murals, plural f--k the Federal Bureau / Shout out to Nostrand Ave. Flushing Ave. Myrtle / All the County of Kings, may your ground stay fertile / Shout out to Big Poppa, Daddy Kane, heroes / Thus concluding my concerto, Marcy me."
"The song is just about what it is; it's like a verbal will, just a song about speaking to my daughter," Jay-Z told iHeartRadio. "She starts the song off, and she says 'Daddy, what's a will?'"
"I've been listening to Wu-Tang and n---as like / 'Your seed, married his seed, married my seed' / That's how we keep Carter money all in the family / You see, my father, son of a preacher man / Whose daughter couldn't escape the reach of the preacher's hand /That charge of energy set all the Carters back," the Rocawear founder spat. "It took all these years to get to zero in fact."
He rapped about spreading his wealth, allowing his daughter to do "whatever she wants to do."
"She might start an institute / She might put poor kids through school / My stake in Roc Nation should go to you / Leave a piece for your siblings to give to their children too / TIDAL, the champagne, D'USSÉ, I'd like to see / A nice peace-fund ideas from people who look like we / We gon' start a society within a society," Jay-Z rapped. "That's major, just like the Negro League. There was a time America wouldn't let us ball / Those times are now back, just now called Afro-tech / Generational wealth, that's the key / My parents ain't have s--t, so that ship started with me / My mom took her money, she bought me bonds / That was the sweetest thing of all time."
Fans can listen to 4:44 in its entirety Friday on iHeartRadio stations across the U.S.
Additionally, non-TIDAL subscribers can stream 45-second snippets of each song.
"This is a perfect storm of sharing music with fans," Jay-Z told E! News in a statement. "Sprint allows for and promotes creative freedom. Every artist strives for support of their vision, and I have that in not just a partnership with Sprint but also in iHeart. The iHeart team are creating an experience for millions of fans across the country. On Friday, June 30, it will be day of firsts."
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