Anybody irritated by the posturing of Jay-Z's previous album, "Magna Carta: Holy Grail" (2013), was likely put off by the prospect of more. If a major rapper arrives at his mid-40s and wants to give us a song that mentions fine wines and a serial-killer drug dealer, then drops the name of a fashion-designer-movie-director more than a dozen times ("Tom Ford"), maybe he should be hosting the Grammys, too.
It's entirely possible that Jay-Z arrived to record "Magna Carta" aware that there's not much of a road map for a rapper in his 40s, especially one whose body of work and reputation are great enough to haunt him. His clever, brash, kaleidoscopically grim 1996 debut, "Reasonable Doubt," is as much a work of memoir of life in the street-level drug trade as it is an album.
On it, he raps with the impunity of a mafia don. It's a distinction that's always kept him seeming a little older than everybody else, while, eventually, holding his competitors' youth against them. On songs like "Change Clothes," with Pharrell, from 2003, and "Off That," with a young-and-hungry Drake, from 2009, he was all too happy to display a cranky old-soul impatience, arguing that because he thinks he is grown up, his peers should, too.
"Y'all [epithet] acting way too tough/Throw on a suit, and get it tapered up," he implored on "Change Clothes."
But eventually that sense of superiority came to sound like an exercise. Rap is a language art, and no matter your age, you need something to say. The problem with "Magna Carta" wasn't that Jay-Z was too old. It is that he sounded bored. The music was disconnected from life, and his materialism sounded passé even for hip-hop. Fashion, art, love, even philanthropy were spiked with a testy self-consciousness. The whole thing reeked of midlife crisis.
"4:44" sounds like a consequence of that crisis. Maybe Jay-Z was bored in his 40s. Maybe he cheated on his wife, Beyoncé. He bought expensive stuff and maybe needed to brag about it. Maybe he was as skeptical and uncertain as we were about what such a person should be rapping about.
Then Beyoncé released "Lemonade," and more or less told him. It arrived in the spring of 2016 and announced to the world that his sense of risk - as a former drug dealer, an entrepreneur and a womanizer - has a cost: her love.
It's believable that Jay-Z really had run out of fresh ideas. But if he were going to keep making new records, "Lemonade" demanded at least a partial response to Beyoncé's agony and the scope of her artistry.
The resulting album isn't trying to match either. "Lemonade" is a fully processed, entirely emotional performance. "4:44" is Tony Soprano at his first couple of sessions with Dr. Melfi. He's not totally sure why he's here and is occasionally petty about it. Jay-Z acknowledges the pain he caused without entirely agreeing to own it.
It's the production, by the longtime hip-hop and R&B producer No I. D., that most gives the album its psychology. He puts samples by the Alan Parsons Project, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, the Clark Sisters and Hannah Williams & the Affirmations to masterly use. Where Jay-Z is inclined to be passive, the music insinuates. It makes him seem more culpable, vulnerable, spiritual and transparent than he might even realize. No I. D. is a studio wizard. He's also Dr. Melfi.
Jay-Z's old creative and sexual promiscuity have been replaced by an act of commitment. No more women, just his wife. No more gluts of great producers, just this one. These are the new risks for him: monogamy, focus, trust. There are new existential concerns, too. The ambition here extends from his own plight to the straits of black people all over America. Nothing like a coherent thesis emerges, but he's feeling his way toward if not a moral capitalism then the idea of who capitalism is for.
Jay-Z began his career talking about all the money he had and how he made it. Now, he's aged into a man with time to think about what the money means, what else it can do. He has become wealthy, and wealth is money with dimension, vision and heirs.
Every time I'm reading a magazine and see one of those ads for a Patek Philippe watch, I take a second to wonder about the meaning of wealth. (This is a timepiece you take out a mortgage for.) The ads usually feature two or three generations of handsome white people, and the tag line is something obnoxiously poignant, like "You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation."