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No Country for Old (Rap) Men: When creative freedom isn’t freedom at all

'4:44' shows off Jay Z's insecurities in more than one way

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The first time I listened to Jay Z’s 4:44, I found myself impressed by his apparent disregard for the radio singles, ‘on trend’ guests, and cynically calculated attempts to appeal to as many rap fans as humanly possible that have plagued a number of his past albums, while also being equally revulsed by the ridiculously transparent attempts to paint himself as being an honest, flawed, and vulnerable artist. Had Jay Z finally utilised his unique position as the most financially secure rapper of all-time to create the record he’d always wanted to make, free from commercial constraints and record label pressure?

The answer is more complicated than I initially thought. Having experienced the ups and downs of being at the behest of major record label through his association with The Jaz in the late eighties, Jay Z realised that the only way to gain that ever-so important upper hand in the music game is to set the terms yourself, which is why he initially made his name in the rap game via his own independent label and let the establishment come to him. Through distribution deals with Priority (who had previously made a name for themselves issuing records from NWA, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Dogg) and Def Jam, Roc-A-Fella Records allowed Jay to balance out his projects with hardcore rap jams produced by DJ Premier and Ski alongside radio hits with Puff Daddy, Swizz Beatz, and Timbaland.

As a student of the music industry, Jay followed the Martin Scorsese theory of ‘one for them, one for me’ in his music, having witnessed many of his rap heroes been left out in the cold as the hits dried up and realising that simply earning the respect of your peers wasn’t going to get you the juice you need for a long term career. Biggie and Puffy had proven this in 1994 with Ready To Die, which pulled-off the near impossible tightrope act of creating a hardcore rap album that could also churn out pop hits. It wasn’t until his third album in 1998, Vol 2…Hard Knock Life, that Jay Z truly nailed the execution and put both the charts and the ‘streets’ in a chokehold.

The idea of making rap albums that aren’t primarily concerned with recouping the record company advance isn’t a new one, by any means. In the eighties, a number of artists released independent records (often funded by illegal means) just for bragging rights. During the mid-nineties ‘indie’ movement, a number of rappers who had steady day jobs were able to release music to a wider audience with no intention of ever making it into radio or video rotation, and this only increased as the internet opened-up a whole new world of direct-to-fans distribution. Artists such as Masta Ace, Company Flow, and Jedi Mind Tricks were able to make high concept rap albums that no A&R would ever have approved of, and were able to sell a significant numbers of albums and singles where they actually saw the lion’s share of the profits, as opposed to the old model where even shipping a million CDs was no guarantee of earning a good living once the record company, video production teams, and promotions people were paid off.

Yet even this phase didn’t last. Once hip-hop’s reliance on vinyl and CD’s was superseded by the technological developments of Serato and digital distribution, those heady days of the indie rap circuit also came to a close. The era that followed demanded that rap follow the 24-hour news cycle, with hungry fans demanding new music on an increasingly regular basis. This produced an environment where a new album was less of a powerful artistic statement of intent and more of an excuse to go on tour again or cross-promote a new sponsorship deal. In some respects, this has freed-up many rappers to create more experimental and conceptual projects, but very few are in a position where they can release music without concern for how it will be received.

For a moment, I pondered that Jay Z was the exception. But then I remember—the one uniting factor in every Jay Z album is ego. 4:44 may sound like a borderline experimental vanity project, with it’s stripped-back sound and one producer concept, but the massive marketing push behind it is anything but. If Mr. Carter had sincerely wanted to  share a deeply personal collection of music with his fans, he could have easily released it as a free ‘mixtape’ (or ‘street album,’ if you will), safe in the knowledge that his legions of loyal fans and music writers would be tripping over themselves to spread the latest gospel of Jay Hova. Instead, there are Tidal streaming service deals, worldwide bill posters, and video clips to let everybody know that Jay can still make as much noise as his wife on the internets and the charts when he wants to. Because no matter how rich and famous Jay Z gets, he always has to have the last word and try to convince us that he’s better than Nas and Biggie, because he can never escape his own insecurities. Maybe it’s a Brooklyn thing.

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