Jay Z’s most noted accomplishment might be marrying Beyoncé, but late Thursday night, the rap icon sought to remind the public that there are two — not one — musical geniuses in the Knowles-Carter union.
With his new album titled “4:44,” the Brooklyn-born rapper (who recently dropped the hyphen in between Jay and Z), returned to the music scene with a vengeance, dropping a 10-track opus that touches on topics from infidelity in marriage to politics and generational wealth. The release promptly set the internet ablaze, inspiring viral memes, hashtags, and some apologies — considering some thought the 47-year-old was past his prime. But it wasn’t just the music that caught the attention of fans worldwide, but also the songs’ raw lyrics and backstories.
Here are some of the not-so-obvious threads that are critical to understanding the album.
Lyric: “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.”
What it means: Eric Benét is the former husband of Hollywood actress Halle Berry. Benét and Berry’s marriage ended after Benét admitted to cheating.
Why that matters: Boom. In the first track of the album, Jay Z finally addresses the rumors that have long surrounded his marriage to Beyoncé. Yes, it seems from this lyrics and others that he cheated on the pop star and almost ruined their marriage. Infidelity was a central theme in Beyonce’s critically acclaimed “Lemonade” album, but Jay Z has never addressed the rumors himself. With the Benét lyric, he finally ends the speculation, giving the public more clues to the infamous 2014 video that showed Solange Knowles, Beyoncé’s sister, physically assaulting Jay Z in an elevator at the Met Gala. It took three years, but as the kids say: Jay Z has finally spilled the tea. He messed up. Bigly.
Lyric: “I still mourn this death, I apologize for all the stillborns / ’Cause I wasn’t present, your body wouldn’t accept it.”
What it means: In the song “4:44,” which is titled that because Jay Z woke up at 4:44 a.m. to write the lyrics, he sends an emotional apology to Beyoncé for the aforementioned cheating. This lyric, however, was an unexpected one, in which Jay Z seems to be alluding to the couple’s difficulty in having children.
Why that matters: For those living under a rock, Beyoncé reportedly gave birth to twins recently. But in this lyric, Jay Z also seemingly confirms more long-held rumors, that the couple had trouble having children before the birth of Blue Ivy, their super-cool, ultra-spunky daughter who is now 5 years old. Jay Z shares more family secrets in the song, including that he called Beyoncé crying while she was on tour, desperate to save his marriage. In other songs, he uses the term “Becky,” a clear reference to the “Becky with the good hair” lyrics on Beyoncé’s album. Some have called Jay Z’s album a response to “Lemonade,” but truly the rapper is not responding to anything. He’s just apologizing.
Lyric: “You walking around like you invincible / You dropped out of school, you lost your principles / I know people back stabbed you, I feel bad too. But this [expletive] everybody attitude ain’t natural.”
What it means: Jay Z is talking about Kanye West, his former protege, business partner, and collaborator. The clue: Kanye West’s first album is called “College Dropout,” plus in the later lyric, Jay Z intentionally mispronounces “Kumbaye” to make the last syllable sound like the “ye” in Kanye.
Why that matters: Kanye West and Jay Z have long been joined at the hip. Before he was a household name, West helped produce Jay Z’s early albums and Jay Z eventually returned the favor, helping West launch his solo career and music label. The two even have a joint album, “Watch The Throne,” which some consider a rap masterpiece. Unfortunately, there’s trouble in paradise, as it seems that Jay Z has had enough of the increasingly erratic West. West recently called out Jay Z at a concert, begging the Brooklyn rapper to return his phone calls. However, with this lyric and others, Jay Z seems to be saying that he has no intention of repairing the friendship, casting West as his own worst enemy, who lost himself after marrying Kim Kardashian and straying from his Chicago roots. For many fans, this pits two favorites against each other. So much for another joint album.
Lyric: “Never go Eric Benét / I don’t even know what you woulda done / In the future, other [men] are playin’ football with your son.”
What that means: A tricky one to decipher. This is actually a reference to Future, another mega-rapper. Follow along closely: Future has a child with pop star Ciara. Ciara is now married to Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who has been snapped playing football with Little Future. Rightly or wrongly, this angered Future and was the source of some controversy.
Why that matters: Time will tell whether Future is offended by this Jay Z lyric. Some have interpreted it as Jay Z merely musing about black fatherhood and using Future’s situation as an example; others believe it’s mocking a sensitive situation that Future himself has called uncomfortable. If Future, the Atlanta rapper with a penchant for club anthems, decided to respond to Jay Z, the rap community would be in for a classic old school/new school battle between icons. Future should be cautioned, though, because Jay Z has a long history of embarrassing would-be rivals with clever and biting lyrics.
Lyric: “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.”
What that means: In a duet called “Smile,” Jay Z’s mom, Gloria Carter, comes out as a lesbian. Another plot twist in the raw album: Gloria Carter also recites a poem at the end of the song.
Why that matters: Jay Z and Beyonce are known for being especially guarded about their personal lives. But on this album, all that seems to fly out the window. From the candidness about their marriage to this revelation about Jay Z’s mom, the rapper gives fans a clearer view into his ultra-famous life than many have ever seen. In this song, Jay Z explicitly backs same-sex marriage in an ode to his mother and her happiness.Astead W. Herndon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH.