Contrary to popular belief, JAY-Z isn’t old yet. He’s old for a rapper—almost old for a rockstar—but he’s still just caught in the throes of middle age. And yet, the last song we hear on his 13th studio album, 4:44, finds him imagining a world without JAY-Z. “Daddy, what’s a will,” Blue Ivy asks at the beginning of “Legacy,” before Jay divvys up his empire and wonders how his family might carry out the good works once he’s gone.
Issues of age and reputation have been on Shawn Carter’s mind for much of his career, but “Legacy” is one of the few times we’ve heard him ponder this far into the future. Way back on “What More Can I Say” in 2003, he almost threatened, “I’m supposed to be number one on everybody list / We’ll see what happens when I no longer exist.” In the context of The Black Album, a line like that could have been referring to his retirement fakeout or to a posthumous reappraisal. 4:44—and “Legacy” specifically—would make for a convincing final statement, but you can’t help but wonder if he’s finally moved on from that sort of grandiosity.
Despite sounding more out-of-touch and removed from humanity than ever before on 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, Jay seemed to have a firm understanding of his diminished place in the game. Two weeks after that record appeared on 1 million Samsung phones in 2013, he told The Truth about why he was wary of becoming like the Rolling Stones:
“I know I’m not gonna be selling out Yankee Stadium; I’m not doing the Rolling Stones thing at 70. I’m doing all this stuff for the next generation to come in and take advantage of it. So whatever took me 15 years to accomplish, it takes them five years to accomplish. It encourages me that I see this crop of next new legends coming in.”
So JAY-Z’s been aware of the endgame for a while now. One day, he’ll be a wrinkly old mogul who doesn’t perform anymore, ceding the spotlight to younger stars. We’ve seen glimpses of this lately, when he was canonized in the Songwriters Hall of Fame and tweeted out his enormous, slapdash list of favorite rappers—both young and old. This is not the kind of thing that happens when you’re still in the prime of your career.
It feels like he’s internalized this on 4:44, a record that deliberately doesn’t chase the zeitgeist or seem to strive for a late-career revolution. No I.D.’s production is unfussy and lays down a fractured backbone for JAY-Z to reveal some of the most naked admissions of his career. I’ve heard some say that the bar for a good JAY-Z album, after his streak of clunkers, is considerably lower than for other major artists in 2017, which, true. But JAY-Z is still burdened by the expectations that come with being one of the greatest rappers of all time.
And this places him in uncharted territory. Calling a song “Kill Jay Z” back in the late ‘90s might have sounded like a challenge, when the lives of his closest contemporaries were inexplicably being cut short without warning. Now, JAY-Z maintains a sort of presidential untouchability, where the greatest danger to his well-being might come from his own sister-in-law on an elevator instead of any external forces. There’s nothing relatable about being Shawn Carter in 2017, as was the case in 2013, and in 2003.
In that, JAY-Z has become our first major rapper to navigate the transition between superstardom and classic rock. His closest analogues from a business and industry standpoint—let’s say Dr. Dre, Diddy, Eminem, and Ice Cube—have either opted out of being artists of the moment or taken an irrefutable creative nosedive.
Moguldom, acting, or a slowed output are all ways to dodge becoming a washed-up legacy act who’s playing out the hits, but JAY-Z has wanted to delay that destination for as long as possible. He’s going it alone at this point, and 4:44 reminded us for the first time in ages that we’re lucky to be witnessing the journey.