Jay-Z is back, and he is vulnerable. But for now, his secrets are exclusive to Tidal.
The veteran Brooklyn rapper, 47, ended weeks of speculation near midnight on Thursday, releasing “4:44,” his 13th studio album, as a digital exclusive on the streaming service he bought in 2015. The album — Jay-Z’s first since “Magna Carta … Holy Grail” in 2013 — features 10 intensely personal and provocative tracks that, yes, include a few references to his wife Beyoncé’s marriage-baring “Lemonade” and the recent birth of the couple’s twins.
As part of a deal with Sprint, which bought a one-third stake in Tidal earlier this year, “4:44” was made available only to those who had subscribed to Tidal before the album’s release, along with existing customers of the cellphone carrier. Tidal, which trails in the streaming race dominated by Spotify and Apple Music, has relied largely on splashy exclusives from its artist partners to encourage sign-ups, making itself the first — and in some cases only — place to hear new music from Kanye West, Rihanna and Beyoncé, whose “Lemonade” has remained a Tidal exclusive since its release in April 2016.
For “4:44,” there was a populist twist to the exclusive release: The album also debuted in its entirety at midnight across 160 pop, rhythm and urban radio stations owned by the broadcast conglomerate iHeartMedia, and it will continue to be played all day Friday on select stations.
In a statement, Jay-Z, who has pulled much of his catalog from rival streaming services, called the release strategy for “4:44” a “perfect storm of sharing music with fans.”
Whether the album leads to more Tidal subscribers or just more online piracy, it is sure to be a talker. Already the lyrics are being dissected and pored over across social media and beyond as listeners attempt to decode which details come from the real lives of one of the most famous (and famously private) duos in entertainment.
Coming in the wake of “Lemonade,” an ambitious multimedia project that was simultaneously Beyoncé’s most personal and most political work to date, “4:44” finds Jay-Z in a similar mode, weaving confessional and biographical songwriting with big-picture perspectives on black life in the United States.
The opening track, “Kill Jay-Z,” sets the tone, explicitly addressing years of tabloid reports and fan-fueled rumors that have made up the Jay-Z mythology, including the marital infidelity that seemed to fuel “Lemonade” and the infamous elevator incident after the Met Ball:
You egged Solange on
Knowin’ all along, all you had to say you was wrong
You almost went Eric Benét
Let the baddest girl in the world get away
(Mr. Benét, an R&B singer who was previously married to the actress Halle Berry, has already responded on Twitter: “Hey yo #Jayz! Just so ya know, I got the baddest girl in the world as my wife….like right now!”)
That song, Jay-Z said in an interview that aired on iHeartMedia, is “about killing off the ego, so we can have this conversation in a place of vulnerability and honesty.” (Another sample lyric: “You can’t heal what you never reveal.”)
His relationship with Beyoncé and their children is also the subject of the album’s raw title track, which Jay-Z called “the crux of the album.” “Look, I apologize/often womanize/took for my child to be born/see through a woman’s eyes,” he raps, adding later: “I suck at love/I think I need a do-over.”
“I woke up, literally, at 4:44 in the morning, 4:44 a.m., to write this song,” Jay-Z, who recently became the first rapper in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, said of the track. “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.”
The album was produced entirely by No I.D., a longtime Jay-Z collaborator who is also known for his work with Mr. West and Vince Staples. Guests include Frank Ocean and Damian Marley, along with subtle flourishes from Beyoncé (“Family Feud”), The-Dream (“Marcy Me”), Jay-Z’s mother, Gloria Carter (“Smile”), and daughter, Blue Ivy (who asks, “Daddy, what’s a will?” on “Legacy”).
In keeping with Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s extended turn toward activism, “4:44” looks outward as well as inward. “The Story of O.J.,” which comes with a potentially incendiary video on Tidal directed by Mark Romanek and Jay-Z, is about “having a plan, how we’re gonna push this forward,” the rapper said on the radio. “We all make money, and then we all lose money, as artists especially. But how, when you have some type of success, to transform that into something bigger.” (“Generational wealth/that’s the key,” he raps on the album closer “Legacy,” repeating a recurring theme.)
The black-and-white animated video for “The Story of O.J.” plays with racial caricatures and historical allusions to slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, segregation, lynching, the Black Panthers and more, all while turning lyrically on the assertion by O.J. Simpson that “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” (The song samples “Four Women” by Nina Simone, which tells a story of racism via female characters with differing skin tones.)
“Financial freedom my only hope,” Jay-Z raps, stressing the importance of investment — in his case, in real estate and art — and once again bringing the conversation back to Tidal. “Y’all think it’s bougie/I’m like, it’s fine,” he adds. “But I’m tryin’ to give you a million dollars’ worth of game for $9.99.”