A famous rapper once spoke this immortal line: “I’m not a businessman; I’m a business, man”.
That man was, of course, Jay-Z so let’s be clear: there’s no doubt that there may be elements of 4:44 that were true as much as Lemonade were, but there’s also no arguing against Hove’s own words. And what better way to grab people’s attention after a lazy Magna Carta Holy Whatever – an album that sent us to sleep with its rich people’s problems – than to commodilfy home drama, to create and set a narrative cat among the pigeons and see us all pore through the details as if, ironically enough, it were the Magna Carta itself.
Jay ain’t playing, that much is obvious. There’s no better way to get people salivating than with an insight into famous lives, and Kill Jay Z does exactly that. As if he’s addressing his non-hyphenate alter ego that went wayward (forgive us while we rub our chin), name-dropping actual Solange and alluding to a certain Mr West with his deliberate “kumbaye” bait. While the latter is pretty sharp and believable, it’s the former that seems too obvious, too open for a man as intelligent as Jay-Z. There’s a whole lot of people crying a wolf called Becky (referenced again on this record), but we’re beginning to think Beyonce‘s own “billion dollars in an elevator” line on the Flawless Remix might be literal and it was probably all just about money. Who knows about BeyJay any more, or indeed cares.
But credit to Jay-Z where he deserves it. The Story of O.J. is built on an exceptional piano beat and sample, aiming his crosshair at something more political (even if it is – groan – more about how bloody rich he is; Moonlight fares a bit better against Hollywood but no less obvious). And his flow is a welcome return, Smile a gorgeous paean to his mother and a full embrace of her sexuality; in fact it’s so throwaway that other hip-hop acts could definitely do with taking notes.
And fuck us if Jay doesn’t come out looking like a bit of a hero through all this. The title track is is huge confessional, on a bed of incredible Kim Burrell and Hannah Williams, writing to his wife and somehow weaving a tale where we manage to feel sorry for him. That is quite a feat in itself – how much of it is actually true we’ll never know, but funnily enough it’s the most heartbreaking and raw we’ve heard Jay in a long, long time. It’s an absolute stunner and the centrepiece by far.
But our scepticism is immediately resurrected as it’s followed by a song called Family Feud, featuring (of course) Beyonce. Sure it’s about his fellow rap community, but there’s something a little bit jarring with its positioning so close to the previous song. All forgiven, too neatly in a bow, Jay-Z preaching about family when supposedly he can’t keep his own in order.
Still, all said and done, it’s music as talking point and that’s something Jay-Z hasn’t managed in quite some time. It feels exciting again, he feels excited again, and his music pops like never before. Maybe a bit of heartbreak did do him good, but regardless of the genesis we’re watching the glorious technicolour insight into music’s First Family and it’s ridiculously entertaining. And viewed as a companion piece to Lemonade, viewed with the same jaded lens, one thing is for sure: nothing is off-limits for these two when it comes commercial gain, and in that respect Jay and Beyonce really do deserve each other, Becky and all.