JAY-Z’s 14th studio album, 4:44, dropped on Friday, and there’s a lot to unpack. While a few tracks (“Moonlight,” “The Story of O.J.”) tackle broader issues like gentrification and the whitewashing of black culture, a good chunk of the songs contain both bold and subtle references to everyone from Beyoncé to “Becky with the good hair” to Kanye West. There are disses, to be sure, but the rap legend’s album is unflinchingly honest when it comes to his personal life (at points brutally so) and contains a beautiful song dedicated to his mother. From taking shots at former friends to apologizing for past mistakes, here’s everyone JAY-Z brings up on 4:44.
“Kill Jay Z”
JAY-Z and Kanye West have had a rocky friendship as of late. Though the two were initially close friends and collaborated in 2011 on their smash album Watch the Throne, West’s marriage to Kim Kardashian (as well as his erratic behavior and rant about JAY-Z and Beyoncé at a concert last year) has driven a wedge between them. “I know people backstab you, I feel bad too,” JAY-Z raps on the first track, “Kill Jay Z.” “But this ‘f*ck everybody’ attitude ain’t natural / But you ain’t a Saint, this ain’t KumbaYe / But you got hurt because you did cool by ‘Ye / You gave him 20 million without blinkin’ / He gave you 20 minutes on stage, f*ck was he thinkin’? / ‘F*ck wrong with everybody?’ is what you sayin’ / But if everybody’s crazy, you’re the one that’s insane.”
The song also contains a line about JAY-Z’s infidelity and the infamous elevator incident with Solange Knowles (who allegedly attacked him for cheating on her sister), as well as a reference to Eric Benét, who cheated on then-wife Halle Berry in the early 2000s. “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 / I don’t even know what else to say / N*gga, never go Eric Benét,” he says. Benét didn’t take long to respond after hearing the song, tweeting on Friday, “Hey yo #Jayz! Just so ya know, I got the baddest girl in the world as my wife . . . like right now! ✌🏾”
Finally, the opening track takes a shot at Future over his beef with ex-fiancée Ciara’s new husband, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. “In the future, other n*ggas playin’ football with your son / You had lost it, 13 bottles of Ace of Spade what it did to Boston.” JAY-Z’s wordplay remains unmatched.
In “Smile,” JAY-Z invites his mother, Gloria Carter, to join him on the third track, where she addresses her sexuality publicly for the first time. “Mama had four kids, but she’s a lesbian / Had to pretend so long that she’s a thespian / Had to hide in the closet, so she medicate / Society shame and the pain was too much to take,” JAY raps, before his mother concludes the song with a poem:
“Living in the shadow / Can you imagine what kind of life it is to live? In the shadows people see you as happy and free / Because that’s what you want them to see / The world is changing and they say it’s time to be free / But you live with the fear of just being me . . . Living in the shadow feels like the safe place to be / No harm for them, no harm for me / But life is short, and it’s time to be free / Love who you love, because life isn’t guaranteed.”
“Caught Their Eyes”
The first person to catch the ire of JAY on 4:44‘s fourth song seems to be West, given the rapper’s references to Paris (aka a nod to his and West’s song “N*ggas in Paris”) and the words “big bro” (probably a reference to West’s song about Hov, “Big Brother”): “Don’t big bro me, don’t big homie / I’ve seen pure admiration become rivals / I’ve been to Paris at least two times / I’ve seen the Eiffel, I’ve seen an eye full.” Next up is Prince’s former lawyer L. Londell McMillan. After Prince died last year, JAY’s streaming service, Tidal, had a fierce legal battle with the Prince estate since JAY claimed the music legend agreed Tidal would be the sole source of his catalog before he passed away. The disagreement ended with both parties in court.
“I sat down with Prince, eye to eye / He told me his wishes before he died,” JAY-Z asserts on the song. “Now, Londell McMillan, he must be color blind / They only see green from them purple eyes / They eyes hide, they eyes high / My eyes wide shut to all the lies / These industry n*ggas, they always been fishy / But ain’t no Biggie, no lazy eye, huh / This guy a slave on his face / You think he wanted a master with his Masters? / You greedy bastards sold tickets to walk through his house / I’m surprised you ain’t auction off the casket.”
Beyoncé confirmed her husband cheated on her in 2016’s Lemonade, and in the emotionally honest “4:44,” JAY attempts to make amends by apologizing to both her and their kids. “I apologize often womanize / Took for my child to be born / See through a woman’s eyes,” he raps on song five. “Took for these natural twins to believe in miracles / Took me too long for this song / I don’t deserve you.” After opening up about cheating, the proud dad also gets real about the effect his decision might have on Blue Ivy and the twins in the future. “And if my children knew, I don’t even know what I would do / If they ain’t look at me the same / I would probably die with all the shame / ‘You did what with who?’ / What good is a ménage à trois when you have a soulmate? / ‘You risked that for Blue?'”
On “Family Feud,” the rap legend makes a reference to the infamous “Becky with the good hair” who Beyoncé first outed as her husband’s mistress on Lemonade. “Yeah, I’ll f*ck up a good thing if you let me / Let me alone, Becky,” he raps. “A man that don’t take care his family can’t be rich / I’ll watch Godfather, I miss that whole sh*t / My consciousness was Michael’s common sense / I missed the karma and that came as a consequence.” The sixth song’s chorus, which has vocals from Beyoncé herself, repeats that “nobody wins when the family feuds.” In the annotations he wrote for each song on 4:44, JAY also explained that the song has a deeper meaning for the rap community. “‘Family Feud’ is about separation within the culture. Like, new rappers fighting old rappers, saying all these things. So, the line is, ‘Nobody wins when the family feuds.'”
When Hov raps “Uh, n*ggas is skippin’ leg day just to run they mouth / I be skippin’ leg day I still run the world” on track seven, “Bam,” it’s another (assumed) diss tossed in West’s direction. It seems to be a direct response to a line in West’s song “30 Hours,” off of 2016’s Life of Pablo: “I hit the gym, all chest no legs.”
The last track on 4:44 is an ode to the legacy JAY hopes to leave behind for his kids. Five-year-old Blue Ivy actually opens the song with an innocent question: “Daddy, what’s a will?” Later, he raps, “I’ve been listenin’ to Wu-Tang and n*ggas like / Your seed, married his seed, married my seed / That’s how we keep Carter money all in the family.”