By now, unless you've been living under a rock, in a cave, on the moon, and your fingers in your ears, you've heard Jay-Z's latest album 4:44, or at least heard the reviews and commentary on it. Mainly, how much of a "grown" and "mature" album this release is. Over the course of the LP, Jay highlights the benefits of things like generational wealth, good credit, and investing in things like art and real estate. Concepts that are very foreign to a lot of young black men who listen primarily to rap. He also is very open and honest about personal shortcomings and his family dynamic. To put it bluntly, this was a very unconventional rap album and a very unconventional Jay Z as well. It was an creative left turn for him as an artist, and a thematic Russian roulette as far as rap albums go. Already, I'm hearing disc jockeys and critics placing 4:44 as one of Jay's top 3 albums, and some are even putting it at numero uno. That's saying a lot considering Jay Z is considered one of the best to ever touch the mic, and this is album #13 for him. After having a week to digest it properly, I can say I was pleasantly surprised by the album, but don't want to be a prisoner of the moment and put it on a pedestal prematurely, but I do think it falls on the more favorable side of Jay Z's discography.
But on to this business of how "grown" this album is. Let me first say that the definition of "grown" is extremely relative, especially within hip-hop. 4:44 has earned that label due to it's touting the aforementioned themes and avoiding hanging it's hat on what 99% of the rap world prides itself on: promiscuity, partying, pills, money, clubbing, violence, frivolous spending, and stunting. So kudos to Jay Z for that. But to perfectly honest, Jay Z isn't the first MC to record a "grown" album if you were to go by that definition. Granted, Jay Z is first rapper of his stature to do so, and maybe that's why he's being looked at like he's reinventing the wheel, but for years the Commons, Mos Defs, Talib Kweli's, and countless others have been putting out music that by any definition would be considered introspective and mature. But...we know how it goes. Because those artists and others like them haven't achieved the level of wealth Jay Z has, their opinion's and in turn, music, holds less weight. People of all races, but in particularly the black community, equate wealth with talent, business acumen, intelligence, professionalism, and credibility. These other "lower level" rappers also don't have the stature to partner with another major corporation to wholesale their album in advance sort to speak. So when Jay Z speaks, the world listens. And he chose to use his moment in the spotlight to impart some gems on the minds of listeners. This is something that is just not simply done (or is extremely rare) by rap acts who are on and popping right now. In fact, if Jay had released 4:44 as his second album, instead of his thirteenth, it might have been career suicide (especially considering there's no real radio single on here). Sure, back in late 80s and early to mid 90s golden era of hip-hop, who had numerous groups and artists who were instilled with a sense of black pride, spirituality, and knowledge of self, but hip hop has been going the way of the savages for a good 15+ years now. Some would argue longer. So when you hear people say "It's about time a rapper made a grown, mature rap album!" they're really talking about rappers among the current crop who are getting radio play and magazine covers, right now.
As for the rest of the rap world, hopefully they'll take notes. Maybe they'll put forth more of an effort to rap about adult things without fearing their sales going down the toilet. Maybe they'll experiment more and rap about family life as opposed to club culture. Maybe they'll encourage younger listeners to show more soundness of mind financially. Listeners will go on whatever journey you take them on as long as it sounds good. Jay Z and many others who've come before him just proved that.