Intro by Stacy-Ann Ellis. Photo illustration by Sam Liacos.
When JAY-Z’s 4:44 dropped, the album stirred up a firestorm of emotions within those fiercely attached to pop culture’s most idolized couple. It was the response to Beyonce’s Lemonade that fans had been clamoring for, especially the title track.
As the apologies came tumbling out from JAY-Z’s lips, ugly truth after ugly truth revealed that even the gold standard for a solid, fairy tale-like marriage—nearly a decade long—had been pricked by the thorn of infidelity. His confessions triggered reactions and responses all across the spectrum.
Here, ILY left the floor open for culture writer Shamira Ibrahim and student Daniel Howie to dissect the good, the bad, and the heartbreaking moments of “4:44.”
ILY: When you saw the initial promo for 4:44, where did you think JAY-Z was headed with the album? What kind of mood were you anticipating?
Shamira Ibrahim: I honestly had very little clue but I wasn’t intrigued until I saw the snippets with Mahershala and Lupita. After MCHG [Magna Carta Holy Grail], I had kind of come away with the sentiment that Jay was out of unique insights to rap about that would interest me in any way. Once I heard some more details around the promo—the fact that it was thematically arranged with just one produce (No I.D.)—I figured we would be veering more introspective.
Daniel Howie: I was on the same page! I really thought he had transitioned into rapping about money and fame and success after Watch the Throne and Magna Carta, which is why 4:44 has been such a breath of fresh air. Sticking with one producer was such a good call, too. It really gave the whole thing this natural cohesion that’s hard to pull off without having just one producer.
ILY: When the title track hit its last second, what were the first thoughts to run through your head? What did you feel?
Howie: I was really taken aback. It’s not super often, from my experience, that an artist gets that embarrassingly personal on a track, but from an artistic standpoint he pulled it off so well. The sample in the beat, his lyricism, the really raw and almost spoken word style he used for the last several lines—it all was swirling in my head at once. I was so shocked but impressed at the same time. Also the fact that the song really abruptly cuts into Beyonce’s vocals in “Family Feud” really surprised me. To go from a song so personal about cheating on your wife and doing her wrong and instantly bring her feature in really caught me off guard, but in a thought-provoking way.
The frankness of the pain that seems Beyoncé went through, told through his eyes, was hard to stomach. –Shamira Ibrahim
Ibrahim: It was overwhelming for sure. There were parts that made me cringe and in multiple listens became really hard to listen to. The frankness of the pain that seems Beyoncé went through, told through his eyes, was hard to stomach. I was reeling for a bit because I don’t think that kind of acknowledgement is something we’ve expected from Jay since maybe “Song Cry”?
Howie: Yeah, it’s really been a while. I definitely was feeling some secondhand embarrassment for him, and everyone I’ve shown the track to reacts the exact same way. I think Lemonade gave it that much more of a kick for me, personally, just because I had been wondering if Jay would ever say anything on the matter in a song.
Ibrahim: I definitely don’t think we get 4:44 without Lemonade. I don’t know if Jay would have alluded to everything he seemingly put her through–if you take those tracks at face value–without Beyoncé speaking openly about her pain in the context of Black Womanhood.
ILY: Right away, he starts with the apologies. How late is too late to say sorry?
Howie: I personally don’t think it’s ever too late for an apology, but it’s easy to be too late for forgiveness. The thing that struck me about this track is that it felt like he was apologizing without an expectation of forgiveness, from anyone involved. It felt like he was just laying it all out there and acknowledging how wrong what he had done was, which, because of the intensity of the lyrics and delivery, I would imagine was really cathartic for him.
Ibrahim: Apologies are great, but like you pointed out, should be offered without expectation of absolution, and many times it can feel like its more for yourself than the other person. I don’t think Jay did that—for one, I assume his wife okayed these tracks before we ever heard them—but it can kind of emit that cringe-worthy feeling of a guy who puts up his wife on an IG with a caption of how many ways he did her wrong but she stayed. It’s like, great, but did we need to know how much you put her through? Who is this honoring, her or yourself? [It] doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a right to speak his truth but it can feel like secondhand embarrassment at times.
Howie: I hadn’t really thought about it that way. I do feel like the secondhand embarrassment was either intentional or honest, but it doesn’t change the fact that there are some moments that just make me wince.
ILY: What line out of “4:44” grabbed your attention the most and held it there?
Howie: Honestly, Jay’s verses were definitely holding my attention the whole time, but the thing that really got me was the sample. I’ve always connected more with the instrumental of a song initially, so the intro of “Do I find it so hard/ when I know in my heart/ I’m letting you down every day/ why do I keep running away?” and then the chorus “I’m never gonna treat you like I should” just kicked me in the gut. I still get chills whenever I listen to it because it’s just so perfect for what Jay is saying, and Hannah Williams delivers those vocals with such soul and honesty. But if there’s one thing that Jay said that stuck with me, it’s a toss up between “I apologize for all the stillborns” and “I never wanted another woman to know something about me that you didn’t know.” Those both just hit me really hard.
“Our strength seems to be constantly associated with how much pain we are able to endure until
our partner comes around to treating us in the manner we deserve.” –Shamira Ibrahim
Ibrahim: For me it was “you matured faster than me/ I wasn’t ready.” That line was so illuminating and frustrating to me, and speaks to so many cishet romantic dynamics I see. Jay is over a decade older than his wife and still placed an expectation from her to hold down the fort in the relationship at 21? There’s something really tragic about that, the fact that so many men seem to be so uninterested in seeking emotional intelligence until well into their middle ages, and even then it feels like baby steps. I kept revisiting this line, especially in the context of the footnotes video for the track that was released, and vacillate from frustrated to resigned to how much of the burden (Black) women seem to be expected to uphold in relationships. Our strength seems to be constantly associated [with] how much pain we are able to endure until our partner comes around to treating us in the manner we deserve, if ever.
“You need to acknowledge difference in maturity and growth, but you can’t validate cheating by saying ‘I wasn’t mature enough yet.'” –Daniel Howie
Howie: You’re completely right. It’s like he’s trying to excuse his mistakes and his faults by saying “well, I wasn’t where you were at, so I had to learn.” That’s not how that should work, ever. Obviously you need to acknowledge difference in maturity and growth, but you can’t validate cheating by saying “Well, I wasn’t mature enough yet.” That was one of the more uncomfortable moments of the song for me.
Ibrahim: This [is] what has frustrated me so much about the discussions post-release. Yes, many of us, men and women, came from stilted families or experienced trauma and whatnot, but at what point do you take personal accountability to work past that instead of waiting to organically see the light? You “not being ready” forced someone who you claim to love deeply to experience immeasurable pain without the support she needed. It’s a bit flippant and a way of acknowledging poor behavior while still distancing yourself from owning it, and it irks me a lot.
Howie: Exactly. There’s a point where you have to open your eyes and say, “OK, I know I’m not as matured and as grown as my partner, but I’m gonna face this and be better because I love them more than my immaturity.” Jay didn’t do that and, honestly, it’s way too late for him to change that, and there’s no way to excuse it. You have to actively progress as a person and partner or you’ll just hurt the one you love.
ILY: What is there to say about pace: one person in the relationship being a step ahead than the other?
Howie: I think it really depends on the people and in what ways one is ahead of the other. I think everyone is a few steps ahead and a few steps behind of everyone else, and it really depends on if those steps balance out with someone else’s. But at the same time, pace can really make or break a relationship, and sometimes it isn’t evident until later on—at least from my experience. It’s a tough thing to gauge, especially in a broad sense.
Ibrahim: Certainly, but the partner who is over a decade senior being the immature one is still unbelievable. Jay was a 33-year-old star pursuing a relationship with 21-year-old Beyoncé and somehow Jay still needed growth? That’s hard to stomach. It honestly made me want to check into the nearest nunnery and emerge when I’m in my 40s.
Howie: Oh yeah, if we’re talking about them specifically then you can’t excuse that. Naturally he’s still growing like all people do, but he shouldn’t be saying how he hasn’t grown enough as an excuse for infidelity and being a bad husband. That’s all on him and his decisions.
ILY: Where do you meet people when they’re telling you “this is it” and you’re more?
Howie: I think you just need to be honest, communicative, and willing to step back and see if you’re holding back someone else’s growth. You have to be willing to evaluate whether or not the compromise that comes with relationships is healthy or not, especially when it comes to compromising your progression as a person or their progression as a person. I’ve known plenty of people on both sides of that, and many times when they tried to force it both they and their partner ended up hurting. There are exceptions, but there’s a point where you have to sit down and make a decision for the betterment of both parties.
ILY: A big heavy moment in this song is Jay seeming to wonder if the stillbirths would’ve not occurred if he was present: “I seen the innocence leave your eyes/ I still mourn this death and/ I apologize for all the stillborns/Cause I wasn’t present, your body wouldn’t accept it.” What are your thoughts on this?
Howie: This line hit home for me because I was the firstborn of my parents and they had several stillborns after I was born. There’s a strange feeling of survivor’s guilt that comes with that and the issues my parents had. There’s so much stress to that experience, and the only way that my parents and I made it through was by holding each other close and allowing it to strengthen us. I feel like Jay is apologizing for not holding her closely; not necessarily for causing her to have stillborn(s), but for not being there to support her through what no mother should ever go through alone.
Ibrahim: I’m not a fertility specialist and have no children of my own, but I don’t think it’s a reach that fraught marital situations can exacerbate conception issues. Furthermore, I’m sure struggling with conception probably amplified whatever marital issues they may have been experiencing—struggles tend to show the worst of a relationship dynamic before coming out of the other end. While I can’t speak definitively to the circumstance of the miscarriage(s) or stillborn(s), I definitely feel a great amount of empathy for Beyoncé who seems to have gone through this process largely alone. That’s a lot of trauma to undergo without the support of your partner while simultaneously trying to stay discreet from the prying eyes of the media. I can’t imagine what that day-to-day experience was like.
“Are we really going to give him this many kudos for finally admitting a decade into a relationship that he was a poor partner for a large part of it?” –Shamira Ibrahim
ILY: What specific things about “4:44” frustrated you?
Howie: I thought the song was really well done. I thought No I.D. executed the beat perfectly to match with the subject matter, but some of the things that Jay said frustrated me just because of how embarrassing and uncomfortable they were. Not a frustration that made me critique the song, since it seemed honest, but a frustration that left me ashamed for him.
Ibrahim: What frustrated me more than the song was the reaction, honestly. Folks were really applauding Jay for some deep level of introspection that I feel like he didn’t deserve. I’m not saying we have to walk Jay down the town center and yell “shame” a la GOT [Game of Thrones], but are we really going to give him this many kudos for finally admitting a decade into a relationship that he was a poor partner for a large part of it? Is the bar so low for women to have their pain acknowledged that “I’m sorry I never learned how to love” is acknowledged as major strides of growth? What are we truly proud of here? What are we taking away? What was detailed in that song was a level of cruelty I hope to not understand, and the conversation surrounding it has landed more on praise for Jay’s openness rather than hammering home the fact that Jay was and is a largely awful partner, and that so many woman have to withstand these dynamics in search of a fruitful relationship on the other side.
Howie: Yeah, I agree. I’m not surprised so many people are praising him for it, though. I think that artistically it is an incredible song, but I would vastly prefer that he had never made the decisions that brought him to write it, and I think that audiences tend to make a connection with introspection and pride. This doesn’t feel like a proud song in the slightest, but people are praising him for something that shouldn’t be praised. I’m all for someone digging into their flaws and mistakes on a track, but that doesn’t mean they should be supported for those mistakes.
“Beyoncé’s choice to stay or leave is hers and hers alone, and one that she doesn’t have to rationalize for anyone.” –Shamira Ibrahim
ILY: Some people are looking at JAY-Z through newly tainted eyes for his infidelity. Some are saying, “I knew it,” while some are giving Beyoncé grief for staying with him through it all. Where do you stand?
Ibrahim: A major celebrity being unfaithful doesn’t particularly surprise me, despite how shocking the intimate details may be. That said, I think Beyoncé’s choice to stay or leave is hers and hers alone, and one that she doesn’t have to rationalize for anyone. There are a whole host of reasons why people chose to maintain a union—financial, social, romantic, and otherwise—and not every personal choice has to be a political one. I can only hope that they’ve worked towards having better mechanism for dealing with inevitable future pitfalls.
Howie: Agreed completely. The shocking nature of the song, for me, came from the way Jay said these things, not the fact that he said them. It didn’t shock me that he was unfaithful at all.
Ibrahim: Right. I feel like we are all very aware of Jay’s brand with the ladies before partnering with Beyoncé; it’s not like he was known as some sort of serial monogamist.
Howie: Who are we to judge their relationship? Objectively, Jay made some awful decisions in their marriage, but we don’t know the inner workings of their relationship beyond what they and the media tells us. I do think that looking at Jay with tainted eyes makes perfect sense, and anyone that views him that way deserves the right and ability to, but anyone giving Beyoncé grief is wrong. She has her reasons for staying, and we shouldn’t shame her for that.
ILY: What do you think of JAY-Z saying that “4:44” was the best song he’s ever written?
Howie: “Proud” is not something he should feel in relation to this song. Viewing it as his best written, however, makes sense to me. It’s so personal and raw for him, it feels like it came from such a deep place within him. I can totally see why he considers this his best song, no matter how awful it makes him look. He shouldn’t feel proud of it though. He shouldn’t feel proud of the fact that he put himself in a situation to be able to even write it. But it’s definitely powerful, and I think it’s valid for him to acknowledge that.
Ibrahim: Agreed. And in context, when you think about the levels of introspection, Beyoncé did a whole album/film project dedicated to speaking towards the sort of pain that Jay dedicated just under five minutes to. Not to say that I require a male [version of] Lemonade from him, I feel like that would feel more contrived than anything, but we should keep in context that while the song acknowledges some painful truths, it really only scratches the surface as to the depths of the Carter-Knowles dynamic.
Howie: Exactly. The public doesn’t know either of them on a personal level, and while they may use their art as an expression of what they go through, we can’t possibly understand the depth of their relationship, their mistakes, and their decisions.
I think part of why this song has gotten so much attention and has so many listeners “proud” of Jay is because he was in such a slump in terms of real depth. Watch the Throne and Magna Carta were so braggadocios and shallow, and all of a sudden we’re submitted to a really detailed depiction of his mistakes, so it feels fresh and redeeming in comparison to the lack of real storytelling and openness in his last handful of releases.
My first thought after listening the album was that he is so honest and deep in the lyrics. It takes courage to open up like that. I’m so sick of lyrics of women, money and their greatness.
JAY-Z is my favorite rapper of all-time. his new album 444 is outstanding. Nice way to explain how to improve our finance. The rapper has documented his rise from poverty to wealth using cautionary lyrics. Loved the album. (https://www.dakeez.com/news/pf/nerdwallet-how-jay-zs-honest-lyrics-can-help-you-improve-your-finances/)