Yoh Phillips breaks down how 4:44 should not have its classic status attributed to Jay-Z, but instead to Shawn Corey Carter.
When Jay-Z returned from faux-retirement with the 2006 album, Kingdom Come, he was a few weeks shy from his 38th birthday. There was an early consideration to release the album under the name on his birth certificate: Shawn Carter, showcasing a complete removal from his famous moniker. Retirement was meant to be the final fade to black, Jay-Z was even gunned down at the end of the Mark Romannek-directed “99 Problems” music video―intended to be his final music video. Saying goodbye in a blaze of glory.
The symbolic death would allow him to start over, a fresh introduction. Jay wasn’t the man he was when entering the music industry as a 26-year-old street hustler with hard knock ideologies. The image ceased to be an accurate portrayal as he transitioned into cultural icon, rap mogul, and entertainment businessman. Coming back to rap meant a re-establishment, Jay was simply too removed from his extreme beginnings to reappear with music like “D’evils” and too sophisticated to sell the outlandishly, lavish lifestyle of “Big Pimpin’” as a man in a serious celebrity relationship and knocking on 40. There was very little room for an aging dog to perform old tricks.
Kingdom Come was released under JAY-Z, likely a marketing decision, and despite scoring his highest first week sales up to that point in his career, the overall reception wasn’t the same glowing ovation The Black Album received. The reviews were mixed then—it has aged a bit better overtime—but still far from one of his best. Jay wanted to be Shawn Carter but struggled finding a voice and a relatable perspective fitting his newfound position as an artist aging within hip-hop. He had moments like “Lost Ones” and “The Prelude” but there was no defending the poor execution of “Anything” and “Hollywood”.
Blueprint 3 and Magna Carta Holy Grail―albums that can be considered more Shawn Carter than Jay-Z―were also received with lukewarm receptions. The life and rhymes of Shawn Carter just weren’t as enthralling as his Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn origin character.
There was a magic missing.
It wasn’t until his thirteenth studio album, 4:44, where Jay-Z finally died and Shawn Carter finally became his most authentic voice.