Clay Cane: Jay-Z's new album removes the machismo that hip-hop glorifies
Men don't usually rap about love for family life and regrets about infidelity, Cane writes
Editor’s Note: Clay Cane is a television commentator and the author of “Live Through This: Surviving the Intersections of Sexuality, God, and Race.” Follow him on Twitter: @claycane. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Let’s go back in time. Twenty years ago, Jay-Z was the hip-hop American dream. A former drug dealer from the notorious Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, New York, who fought his way into the music industry. His first album, 1996’s “Reasonable Doubt,” was hugely successful, forging a path for the Brooklyn native to become one of the most iconic rappers in history.
Jay was the “so-called” perfect image of hip-hop at the time. He was rooted in hyper-masculinity with lyrics full of sexism, homophobia and violence. Jay was “hard,” a “real man,” someone you feared and admired. He was a controversial, complex poet who was not above critique.
Fast-forward to 20 years later, Jay-Z has reinvented himself as an artist that no one saw coming. On the album “4:44,” which dropped Friday, Jay peels back the mask of toxic masculinity with vulnerability and compassion.
This album, especially from someone as iconic as Shawn Carter (his real name), is revolutionary for male hip-hop artists. Moreover, this transformation appears to be influenced by the women in his life, especially his wife of nine years, Beyoncé.
On April 23, 2016, Queen Bey dropped “Lemonade” and the Internet broke, “Becky with the good hair” became a household term and many wondered if Bey was on the verge of leaving her longtime husband.
Now, “4:44” is Jay-Z’s complement to “Lemonade,” which is also breaking the Internet – the album was tweeted about 810,000 times on the night it was released.
The two albums are a discourse in marriage, navigating the difficult terrain of love, family and regrets. While Bey and Jay are extremely private, their choice to unpack their relationship through music – not a reality show or attacking each other on social media – is brilliant.
“Lemonade” and “4:44” feel like therapy through art. They endured troubling times but pushed each other to work through their issues and persevered.
Men, especially black men in hip-hop, are rarely afforded the space to unravel their emotions. Apologies are sometimes interpreted as weakness. But regardless of holding up trite, hip-hop machismo, Jay presents a rare intimacy throughout the album.
In the title track, he raps, “I apologize, often womanize/ Took for my child to be born to see through a woman’s eyes.” In the same song, he boldly admits to infidelity:“‘You did what with who?/ What good is a ménage à trois when you have a soul mate?/ You risked that for Blue?’” (Blue Ivy is his daughter.)
Jay-Z is clearly admitting, which is seriously scarce in this genre of music, that women have changed his life and perspective. Imagine if more powerful men, especially those who live in the White House, apologized. We would live in a much different and more peaceful era.
Bey and Jay’s cultural impact provides a unique look into modern marital life. Sure, there is nothing new about a married couple uniting in the media. However, Bey and Jay are arguably unlike any couple we have seen, especially in the music industry. Beyoncé is not standing behind her man or even next to him. Beyoncé is more famous, sells more albums and clearly is in control of her career.
But all of that hasn’t hindered Jay- Z. In fact, he has clearly evolved by having such a strong, successful partner. Who would’ve thought an artist who was once known for songs like “Money, Cash, Hoes,” “Big Pimpin’” and “Gangsta S**t” would be the man he is today?
Jay’s 13th studio album is not just good music, but it’s a lesson in growth. It’s also the result of redemption through the power of a love you are not intimidated by and the strength in owning your faults.
Jay-Z is looking to his wife, not by putting her on a pedestal, but as creative inspiration. He is not afraid of her genius, strength and creativity, which I hope is a sentiment that filters down to more men.
Whether or not Jay-Z knows it, with “4:44” he may have made his foray into feminism.