i know that i'm not good
Too Much Su-Su Su-Su Su – Jay Z’s 4:44
What is a 47-year-old father of three doing releasing an album this goddamn good? When I listened to 4:44, Jay-Z’s thirteenth solo album, my conclusion after the first seven or eight songs was, OK, Jay just made one of the two or three best Kanye West albums of all time.
I’m a fan, not an expert, but what sustained my excitement while listening to this album was the perfectly sampled and looped cuts from old and new soul songs. To clarify, this entire album was produced primarily by No I.D. (aka Dion Wilson), who is known for the style of production that created some of Kanye’s best tracks, including “Black Skinhead” and “Bound 2” from the Yeezus album. The style is simple enough to describe: track down a soulful B-side from a well-known singer or a should-have-been song from an unknown artist, isolate a moment of true vocal excellence, exercise brilliant restraint when manipulating the sample to turn it into something new but recognizable, and then collect all of Brendon’s money.
There are winners throughout: the up-pitched sample of Nina Simone’s piano and vocal from “Four Women” turns the already-viral “The Story of O.J.” into a down-tempo banger that digs into colorism and the race-conscious divides that have divided various groups of black people for generations. In the song, Jay raps, “House nigga, don’t fuck with me / I’m a field nigga, go shine cutlery / Go play the quarters where the butlers be / I’ma play the corners where the hustlers be.” It’s not lost on me that Jay is in that rarefied air of having earned an ever greater come-up than OJ, going from selling drugs in Brooklyn to having a combined family net worth of over $1 billion. He uses the track to drop some financial advice on his black fans and gets himself into some hot water with the Anti-Defamation League for using an anti-Semitic stereotype to compliment Jews in America. That aspect of the song won’t age well, but it’s not going to stop this album from reinvigorating Jay’s music career.
The next sample, the one that everyone will be talking about, is from “Late Nights & Heartbreak” by Hannah Williams & The Affirmations. Its use in the album’s title track is a thesis statement on the power of sampling, which is a genre-defining tool in rap music, to create and perhaps improve on existing art by remixing it. I have listened to the original song, and it is terrific. Hannah Williams’s voice is a revelation, and I’m glad that this feature is going to introduce thousands of Jay-Z fans to what she and her band can do. But “4:44” is still, somehow, impossibly, an improvement on the original. Through No I.D.’s cutting and looping of Williams’s run on the line, “I know that I’m not good,” he builds an entire structure on which to develop instrumental themes. That sample is the house. Jay and his lyrics are just the furniture. And while these lyrics, about acknowledging his infidelity and accepting the fact that one day his children are going to hold him accountable for putting his family at risk for short-term satisfaction, are beautiful, it’s the sample that makes the song an instant classic.
I’m a New York hip hop apologist. Not that there’s anything to apologize for when New York hip hop is the best. But I ride hard for sounds that typify New York rap: piano-dominant instrumentation, soul sampling, complex lyricism, the blending of highbrow and lowbrow imagery. But one element of New York rap that doesn’t get enough shine, partly because it’s been more successfully adopted recently by Chicagoans (Kanye) and Canadians (Drake) is the integration of reggae and dancehall rhythms and references into songs. Many of the first MCs in the Bronx came from Jamaican families who found themselves transplanted to New York.
I am, myself, the son of a Jamaican immigrant who came to New York by way of Canada in 1969.
So believe me when I say the collaboration between Jay and Damian Marley on “Bam” might be the most life-giving song on 4:44. In it, Marley samples and inverts the 1976 Jacob Miller song “Tenement Yard” updating the word “dreadlocks” to “gangster” and “rude boy.” Here’s the hook as presented in a sneak peek of the upcoming video:
The song comes in the final third of the album and introduces a tone shift from the more vulnerable subject matter in the first six tracks, what Jay calls “all this pretty Shawn Carter shit.” This song is in full flex mode, it bangs, and smacks down all of Jay’s aspirants to what he feels is still his throne. Marley’s contribution in the hook and the outro further takes shots at the so-called IG generation of rappers, who do “too much watchie watchie watchie / and them su-su su-su su.” The patois-to-English conversion of “watchie” should be clear, but to “su su pon” on someone means to gossip about them.
If I were in that younger generation of rappers, I’d put down the money phones, pick up a pen and paper, and hope someone could get me an introduction to No I.D., because some older family man with a growing art collection just renewed his lease on the throne.
above image: "Jay Z," Rich Thane / flickr