A year ago, the idea of Jay-Z releasing his own musical response to Beyoncé‘s Lemonade felt banal. Fans of the couple immediately had reservations as to why anyone needed to hear his side of the story – a story made perfectly clear with his wife’s musical manifesto of grief and betrayal in the face of infidelity.
Thankfully, Jay-Z never released that album. Instead, he crafted 4:44, which among other things, is a stunning, raw and mature apology that’s as much an ode to partnership and family as it is an example of how vulnerability can make for truly excellent art.
The album’s title track is the most specific and touching. In the song, Jay-Z notes that the birth of his daughter Blue Ivy helped him change his ways and “see through a woman’s eyes.” In the heart-wrenching final verse, he ponders how he would explain his mistakes to his children, the moment when “the mask goes away and Santa Claus is fake.”
On “Kill Jay Z,” he takes responsibility for the 2015 Met Gala fiasco, when leaked footage showed his sister-in-law Solange Knowles physically attacking him in an elevator as Beyoncé stood in the corner. The event itself was a rare break in the pristine public image the couple presented to the world, and the infamous photos of the trio exiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art showed Beyoncé smiling, her sister scowling and her husband clutching his unmarked face and notably bruised ego. With class, he admits to egging on the protective younger sibling, noting the bigger picture of his mistakes.
Like his wife, however, Jay-Z is keenly self-aware. He knows that as a black man married to a black woman – both of whom rose from working-class roots to become a billionaire couple – there is a schadenfreude-driven desire from the whitest corners of America to watch them fail. People memed and devoured the Met Gala story for that very reason, basking in the revelation of cracks in their perfect family portrait.
So while Beyoncé gave Lemonade listeners a mystery to unfold by dropping lines about “Becky” – which many connected to the presence of designer and rumored Jay-Z mistress Rachel Roy on that fateful Met Gala night – and hinting at the level of betrayal she felt, she wrapped her personal story in a greater narrative of black womanhood. As many wondered how the world’s most powerful and respected female artist could feel so dismissed, she provided a thesis-level analysis of the ways black women have been forgotten and subdued.
Jay-Z maintains a similar strategy, candidly addressing the reality of his faults between searing takes and advice on how to be black in the business world. It’s the type of perspective that could only come from someone who has risen up in the face of a world that doesn’t want to see someone like him progress beyond the level of a stock character. It’s the same motivation he addresses in both the lyrics and video for “The Story of O.J.” where he plays upon the racist minstrel cartoons that were meant to further subjugate and indict the black community as lazy, among other still prevalent stereotypes.
Together, Beyoncé and Jay-Z have spent their entire relationship countering a public desire to see them slip up and to tear them down. They courted each other quietly in the early millennium, only playing up their fairytale romance for songs like “Crazy in Love” and “’03 Bonnie and Clyde” before marrying with little fanfare in 2008 and keeping their union private for a few weeks before the public found out.
The Knowles-Carters are the rare power couple to make the rumors and gossip about them seem tedious and nearly mythical, sharing on their own terms, and quite sparingly at that. Even the birth of their twins has been shrouded in confusion, their family staying silent outside of a vague congratulations on social media from the newborns’ maternal grandfather. As honest and raw as Beyoncé was on Lemonade, there was still skepticism about how real the infidelity was, with many wondering if she was crafting a supposedly autobiographical story for the sake of an album narrative – a common tactic for artists and storytellers to employ.
Privacy bought them flexibility. Jay-Z’s business pursuits with Roc Nation clearly took off and Beyoncé built herself into one of the most recognizable and celebrated performers in the world on her own terms and with her own team. They made themselves palatable to a world where the opportunities for black performers and businesspeople were still narrow. Their love story became that of the sweet, Southern Christian girl reforming the thug rapper with a criminal record into a husband and a father. They gamed a system built on using respectability politics to keep black entertainers subdued and found a real partnership and connection.
Everything the Knowles-Carter family wants us to know is on Lemonade and 4:44. Beyoncé has not and may never explain her process or her songs further. For an iHeartRadio exclusive, Jay-Z “explained” the meaning behind each song on his album but still remained elusive. He doesn’t even touch the soul-searching on “4:44” but does call it “one of the best songs I’ve ever written.”
Beyoncé does actually make an appearance on 4:44, singing the gospel-style backing vocals on the cheekily named “Family Feud,” which directly follows the fateful title track. But the context shows how both have moved on, with the rapper now addressing tensions in the hip-hop community instead of his relationship with his wife. And that is ostensibly the final word he needs to give on where their union stands.