JAY-Z’s Best Verses & References From ‘4:44’
By: Alex Marcheschi
The bounce is back! Shawn Carter is very much alive and he’s spitting bars into your soul with his latest masterpiece. His new album, 4:44, got its name from an instance when JAY-Z woke up at 4:44 am and immediately jotted down a song for the album. Didn’t think it was possible for anybody to top Kendrick’s DAMN., but the Master Teacher stepped out of his chamber and taught us a lesson.
Even though the album came out last week, my first listen occurred last night thanks to this Business Insider article that explains how to legally download the album. For those who don’t know, JAY-Z released the album solely on his own streaming service called Tidal, and if you didn’t already have the app, you had to switch phone carriers to Sprint to get it. As a result, Sprint had to purchase the rights to his album, which made it essentially go platinum before it even dropped.
Ever since my ginger ears heard The Black Album in sixth grade I knew JAY-Z would be my favorite rapper of all-time. He emerged from the darkness with this album, proclaiming, “This is HOV, no flex zone, n****, who lied to you? Look, you a pedestrian. Don’t ever question the security I provided you. Oh, you thought I was washed? I’m at the cleaners launderin’ dirty money like Teamsters.”
I’ve compiled my favorite lyrics and one liners from the album below, written chronologically in the order the songs appear on the album (still haven’t found the deluxe album, so this only contains the first 10 songs). Enjoy.
1 – Kill JAY-Z
JAY-Z described every song to iHeart Radio and this is what he had to say about “Kill JAY-Z”:
“The first song is called ‘Kill JAY-Z’ and obviously, it’s not to be taken literal. It’s really about the ego. It’s about killing off the ego, so we can have this conversation in a place of vulnerability and honesty.”
And that’s exactly what he did. In the song, he mentions the recent blips in his relationship with Kanye, his marital struggles and the times his ego almost killed him. Here are my favorite lines from the song:
“You almost went Eric Benét, let the baddest girl in the world get away. I don’t even know what to say. N**** never go Eric Benét!”
Eric Benét is the former husband of Halle Berry, who lost her because he cheated on her. JAY-Z almost lost Beyonce due to infidelity as well.
In another reference to almost losing everything he cherishes most, he raps about Future and Russell Wilson:
“In the Future, other n****s playin’ football with your son, you woulda lost it.”
This is of course a reference to how Future lost Ciara after cheating on her, and how Seahawks QB Russell Wilson then married her and, as a result, raises the rapper’s son.
2 – The Story of O.J.
Here’s how JAY-Z described “The Story of O.J.” to iHeart Radio:
“The Story of OJ’ is really a song about we as a culture, having a plan, how we’re gonna push this forward. We all make money, and then we all lose money, as artists especially. But how, when you have some type of success, to transform that into something bigger.”
The song is centered around O.J. Simpson’s famous “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” quote. Here are my favorite lyrics from the song:
“I coulda bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo, for like 2 million. That same building today is worth 25 million. Guess how I’m feelin’? Dumbo.”
This was classic wordplay from HOV as he tries to teach us all a lesson. He raps about how you can really secure wealth by investing in property and art. Jay’s hometown of Brooklyn has been heavily gentrified in recent years, and in the above lyric, JAY-Z explains to us that he could have capitalized on it. “Dumbo” is an area in Brooklyn that stands for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass”. He could have bought up property there, but passed on it, and now he feels like a dumbo because it’s value has multiplied by more than tenfold. Brilliant.
JAY-Z then pokes fun at those who make fun of him for his most recent hobby, collecting classic artwork. Here’s what he said:
“I bought some artwork for 1 million. 2 years later, that shit worth 2 million. Few years later, that shit worth 8 million. I can’t wait to give this shit to my children. Y’all think it’s bougie, I’m like, it’s fine but I’m tryin’ to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99.”
Oh, you thought it was a cute hobby? SIKE, hes multiplying stacks. My next favorite line from the song is this:
“Y’all on the ‘gram holdin’ money to your ear. There’s a disconnect we don’t call that money over here.”
This is a direct shot to the new youth movement in hip hop. What they think is money is toilet paper to HOV.
3 – Smile
Here’s what HOV told iHeart Radio about ‘Smile’:
“‘Smile’ is just what it is. There are gonna be bad times, and those bad times can do two things: they can get you in a place where you’re stuck in a rut, or it can make your future that much better because you’ve experienced these things.”
Personally, this is my favorite song on the album. It’s an extremely deep song centered around how JAY-Z’s mother knew she was a lesbian all her life, but was too scared of society’s reaction to admit it. Here’s the first line that jumped out at me from the song:
“We drinkin’ Cristal and…yeah. Kept the tray on me like Chris Paul then. Drinkin’ Ace of Spades like it’s codeine now.”
This is about how Jay made Cristal a famous drink early in his career, but when Cristal’s owner refused to acknowledge his influence, Jay bought his own champagne brand – Ace of Spades. I love the “tray/tre” wordplay, he meant that he always had a tray of champagne around him like Chris Paul always wears number 3, but now he drinks his own brand as much as the new rappers say they drink codeine.
He then drops this truth bomb that speaks for itself:
“A loss ain’t a loss, it’s a lesson. Appreciate the pain, it’s a blessin’.”
He later says:
“My therapist said I relapsed, I said, ‘perhaps I Freudian slipped in European whips.”
That’s just a cool line. Then he gives a warning to all the people who started to talk down on his name recently:
“Everybody wave bye to the guy you thought you could lie to. This was meant to be a haiku, huh, but my story’s too wide to fit inside the line or two.”
Then, at the end of the song, Jay’s mom makes her first appearance since her bars on “December 4th” from The Black Album. And honestly, her words are beautiful:
Living in the shadow
Can you imagine what kind of life it is to live?
In the shadows people see you as happy and free
Because that’s what you want them to see
Living two lives, happy, but not free
You live in the shadows for fear of someone hurting your family or the person you love
The world is changing and they say it’s time to be free
But you live with the fear of just being me
Living in the shadow feels like the safe place to be
No harm for them, no harm for me
But life is short, and it’s time to be free
Love who you love, because life isn’t guaranteed
4 – Caught Their Eyes
Here’s how Jay described this song to iHeart Radio:
“‘Caught Their Eyes’ is a song that’s dealing with just being aware of your surroundings. There’s a line in it, and it says, ‘Your body language is all remedial, how could you see the difference between you and I?’ Just being so sharp about your surroundings.”
JAY-Z explains how he’s a master reader of body language in this song and he brought out Frank Ocean. Such a smooth vibe to this one, if you weren’t woke before hearing it, you will be when you’re done. Here’s the first line that jumped out to me:
“Bruh, I survived readin’ guys like you. I’m surprised y’all think you can disguise y’all truths. I seen eyes wide as they’re about to shoot. You can be a hairpin off and you can trigger your Roots. I wave to these haters, don’t give me dap. You know the world can see how phony you act.”
If anyone in the music industry tries to disrespect JAY-Z after hearing that line, well, RIP to them. That line referencing the hairpin trigger of a gun triggering your Roots, with a capital “R” to reference the band and its leader – Questlove, who always has an afro pick, or “hairpin” – is simply next level shit.
On to the next reference, which is about Prince:
“I sat down with Prince, eye to eye. He told me his wishes before he died. Now, Londell McMillan, he must be color blind. They only see green from them purple eyes. They eyes wide shut to all the lies. These industry n****s, they always been fishy. But ain’t no Biggie, no lazy eye, huh. This guy had “Slave” on his face. You think he wanted the masters with his masters? You greedy bastards sold tickets to walk through his house.”
Jay is criticizing Londell McMillan, Prince’s former attorney and adviser to his estate, because he sued JAY-Z over the rights to Prince’s music. In July of 2015, JAY-Z’s streaming service, Tidal, was granted the exclusive streaming rights to Prince’s music. Prince said this of the deal – “After one meeting, it was obvious that Jay Z and the team he has assembled at Tidal recognize and applaud the effort that real musicians put into the craft to achieve the very best they can at this pivotal time in the music industry.”
However, after Prince died, McMillan sued Tidal after it made Prince’s music available on its streaming service. Prince’s music is now available on Apple Music and Spotify. Jay killed him with the “you think he wanted the masters with his masters?”, playing on the term ‘slave master.’ Prince once famously wrote Slave on his face during a dispute with Warner Bros. Records.
5 – 4:44
Here’s how Jay described ‘4:44’ to iHeart Radio:
“‘4:44’ is a song that I wrote, and it’s the crux of the album, just right in the middle of the album. And I woke up, literally, at 4:44 in the morning, 4:44 AM, to write this song. So it became the title of the album and everything. It’s the title track because it’s such a powerful song, and I just believe one of the best songs I’ve ever written.”
Basically, this song is the only time JAY-Z has given us an in depth look into his marriage with Beyonce, the full lyrics can be found here. He tells us that he is deeply spiritual in this song, saying:
“I apologize for all the stillborns, ’cause I wasn’t present, your body wouldn’t accept it. I apologize to all the women whom I toyed with your emotions because I was emotionless.”
That’s a line we never thought we’d hear the “Big Pimpin'” artist say.
Pretty amazing. Then, he dropped this:
“Like the men before me, I cut off my nose to spite my face”
This is an old idiom about overreacting to an existing problem and only making it worse.
6 – Family Feud
JAY-Z’s summary of this song:
“‘Family Feud’ is about separation within the culture. Like, new rappers fighting with old rappers, saying all these things. So, the line is, ‘Nobody wins when the family feuds.’”
My wife in the crib feedin’ the kids liquid gold
We in a whole different mode
Kid that used to pitch bricks can’t be pigeonholed
I cooked up more chicken when the kitchen closed
Oh, we gon’ reach a billi’ first
I told my wife the spiritual shit really work
Alhamdulillah, I run through ’em all
Hovi’s home, all these phonies come to a halt
All this old talk left me confused
You’d rather be old rich me or new you?
And old n****s, y’all stop actin’ brand new
Like 2Pac ain’t have a nose ring too, huh
The fight’s over. Cancel the evening. Just a little reminder that Jay will always be the king as long as he’s alive. His Godfather reference later on in the song was chillingly cold:
Yeah, I’ll fuck up a good thing if you let me
Let me alone, Becky
A man that don’t take care his family can’t be rich
I’ll watch Godfather, I miss that whole shit
My consciousness was Michael’s common sense
I missed the karma that came as a consequence
N****s bustin’ off through the curtains ’cause she hurtin’
Kay losin’ the babies ’cause their future’s uncertain
Then, finally, he rips on leaders in the black community who have lost it:
“Al Sharpton in the mirror takin’ selfies, how is him or Pill Cosby s’posed to help me?”
7 – Bam
Here’s what he said about ‘Bam’:
“The song ‘Bam’ with Damian Marley, it’s just jammin’, it’s just like the song. But it’s secretly Shawn Carter saying, ‘Man, you need a bit of ego.’ It was because of me and the things that I’ve done, this is JAY-Z saying you needed a bit of ego for us to arrive at this point.”
JAY-Z makes fun of the younger rap generation again in this one, saying:
“Y’all be talking crazy under them IG pictures, so when you get to hell you tell ’em Blanco sent ya.”
This is a reference to an old Biggie song and an observation about how all of these young rappers make threats on social media. He then hilariously clapped back to the internet memes that made fun of him for looking like he “skips leg day” in pictures.
He said, “N****s is skippin’ leg day just to run they mouth. I be skippin’ leg day, I still run the world.”
Then, at the end of the song, Damian Marley drops a verse as he pays respect to Sister Nancy, who made the song “Bam Bam” that they sampled in this song.
I come to nice up the whole nation
What a bam bam yeah, Lord
And mi seh what a bam bam (Do it, dread!)
Can’t you see it’s my ambition
I come to nice up the whole nation
What a bam bam
What a bam bam
I don’t give a God damn
I don’t give a God damn
When mi come a dance and mi spliff and Guinness
Yow, crowd of people–go and mind yuh business
This a hunting season
Mek I tell you hunting season
Well, I tell ya something season
Yow this a hunting season
Cake and dumpling season
Spinners and dumpling season
Don’t play by the king
Love is all I and I bring you know
Voice of the one pon gully banking
Top ranking, keep it skanking
Ooh wee, huh
Hear me now
8 – Moonlight
Here’s what Mr. Carter said about this song to iHeart Radio:
“The hook is ‘We stuck in La La Land/Even if we win, we gonna lose.’ It’s like a subtle nod to La La Land winning the Oscar, and then having to give it to Moonlight. It’s really a commentary on the culture and where we’re going.”
Really a genius analogy to make by Jay. He then fires some shots at leaders of the industry with these lines:
“Lucian is cool, but Lucian don’t write. Doug ain’t this tight, so fuck is we sellin’? Fuck is we makin’? ‘Cause their grass is greener, ’cause they always rakin in more.”
Lucian Grainge is the Chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group and is credited for bringing the music industry back to life, but as JAY-Z points out, he’s not an artist.
Doug Morris is the former head of Universal Music Group who JAY-Z paid $5 million to get out of his contract for Blueprint 3.
9 – Marcy Me
Here’s Jay on ‘Marcy Me’:
“‘Marcy Me’ is a nostalgic walk through Marcy, and it’s about that hopefulness, that feeling of ‘Man, can I really do this? Can I really be one of the biggest artists in the world?’ You have these dreams, ‘Can I be one of the biggest basketball players?’ We have these dreams.”
For those who don’t know, Jay grew up in the Marcy Projects in Bedford-Stuyvesant. This is classic JAY-Z, it’s always awesome to hear him talk about his youth. He even quotes from Hamlet in this one, saying:
“‘Lord, we know who we are. Yet, we know not what we may be.’ So maybe I’m the one or maybe I’m crazy.”
There’s simply not another rapper alive who could work a Hamlet quote perfectly into a verse. Then he drops a cool couple of lines with a shoutout to Lil Uzi Vert.
“Hold a Uzi vertical, let the thing smoke. Y’all be flirtin’ with death, I be winkin’ through the scope.”
10 – Legacy
The last song on the free download of the album. Here’s how HOV described it to iHeart Radio:
“The song is just about what it is, it’s like a verbal will. Just a song about speaking to my daughter. She starts the song off, and she says ‘Daddy, what’s a will?”
Writing a verbal will in the form of a song is such a creative idea, and as always, this song is chock full of historical references. In my favorite one, JAY-Z says:
“We gon’ start a society within a society. That’s major, just like the Negro League. There was a time when America wouldn’t let us ball. Those times are now back, just now called Afro-tech.”
JAY-Z is referencing Afrotech, which is the largest Black tech conference in Silicon Valley. Just as it was once hard for Black athletes to break into sports, it’s now hard for Black Americans to break into the tech industry.
He also talks about generational wealth, saying:
“Generational wealth, that’s the key. My parents ain’t have shit, so that shift started with me.”
He goes on to break down his views on faith, in the album’s astoundingly complex final verse:
I remember, like, listenin’ to Wu-Tang and n****s like
“Your seed, married his seed, married my seed”
That’s how we keep Carter money all in the family
You see, my father, son of a preacher man
Whose daughter couldn’t escape the reach of the preacher’s hand
That charge of energy set all the Carters back
It took all these years to get to zero in fact
I hated religion ’cause here was this Christian
He was preachin’ on Sundays, versus how he was livin’ Monday
Someday I’ll forgive him
‘Cause strangely our division led to multiple religions
I studied Muslim, Buddhist, and Christians
And I was runnin’ from him, He was givin’ me wisdom
See how the universe works?
It takes my hurt and help me find more of myself
It’s a gift and a curse
That’s called the red queens race
Here we see JAY-Z observing the butterfly effect, or the idea that actions cause reactions endlessly all over the universe. He sums it all up by calling it “the red queen’s race” which is a reference to Lewis Caroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, which is the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
The Red Queen’s Race involves the protagonist meeting a chess piece that runs very fast, but doesn’t move at all because the landscape is moving with it. The Red Queen’s Race is the name of the idea that one must work very hard just to keep up with the rest of the world.
For JAY-Z to end the album with this, well, it’s perfect. No other musical artist is capable of working this many literary references, art references and double entendres into a project. No one is capable of keeping up with him. There’s a reason Kendrick called him “Master Teacher” in that tweet, it’s because he truly is the professor of hip hop. The industry reacts to what he does. As rappers love to say, there’s levels to this shit, and JAY-Z is simply on his own plane.