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Jay-Z Releases New Album, '4:44,' Raps About Race on Provocative 'O.J.' Track

by Erik Ortiz /
Image: Jay-Z attends 2017 Roc Nation Pre-Grammy Brunch
Jay-Z attends the Roc Nation Pre-Grammy Brunch at Owlwood Estate on Feb. 11, 2017, in Los Angeles.Ari Perilstein / Getty Images for Roc Nation

Rap superstar Jay-Z dropped his latest album, "4:44," just before midnight Thursday and it was immediately hailed as a deeply raw response to wife Beyoncé's 2016 hit "Lemonade."

In it, Jay-Z appears to admit to his infidelity by cheekily referencing "Becky" — the same name used by Beyoncé in a "Lemonade" song that had her fans scrambling to figure out who the woman was at the center of the rumors.

Image: Jay-Z attends 2017 Roc Nation Pre-Grammy Brunch
Jay-Z attends the Roc Nation Pre-Grammy Brunch at Owlwood Estate on Feb. 11, 2017, in Los Angeles.Ari Perilstein / Getty Images for Roc Nation

As admirers of the power couple — married for nearly 10 years and now the parents of twins — pick apart the personal themes of each track, music experts say Jay-Z has done something meaningful on the album that shouldn't be overlooked: He addresses the intersection of race, wealth and oppression in America using provocative imagery.

"The idea that this is merely a response to 'Lemonade' really diminishes the power of it," said Gerrick Kennedy, a music writer for the Los Angeles Times. "This is an album for black men and women first and foremost."

The song gaining attention, "The Story of O.J.," uses snippet's from Nina Simone's 1966 song "Four Women," and has Jay-Z repeating the refrain, "Light n----, dark n----, faux n----, real n---- ... Still n----."

He also uses a line attributed to O.J. Simpson in the TV miniseries "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story," in which the arrested football great says imploringly from behind bars: "I'm not black. I'm O.J."

Related: Jay-Z's Mother Comes Out as Lesbian in Duet on New '4:44' Album

In an accompanying animated music video, Jay-Z is no holds barred about the black experience. The main character is called Jaybo, a play off of the Sambo character from the 19th century children's book considered mocking and racially insensitive toward African-Americans.

The video has scenes of characters eating watermelon, slaves picking cotton and Jaybo being lynched.

Jay-Z in his lyrics, however, suggests it's possible to overcome the cycle of oppression through "financial freedom" — and that working toward good credit can be more empowering than simply amassing cash.

"I'm tryin' to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99," he raps, alluding to the music streaming service that he co-created called Tidal.

Kennedy said the song is powerful because it derides the value of old hip-hop tropes about throwing money in clubs or slinging drugs.

"The song is just a phenomenal look at what can be wrong with us sometimes," he added. "Even when he's talking about credit, he's like, 'I can see you on Instagram with stacks of money to your ear — that's not rich to me.'"

Jay-Z, born Shawn Carter and raised in a Brooklyn, New York, housing project, made no secret in a 2013 interview with Vanity Fair about being a drug dealer in the past. But after co-founding his own independent label in 1995, he released a debut album, "Reasonable Doubt," and was on the path to hip-hop stardom.

A string of hits followed over the years, including "Hard Knock Life," "99 Problems" and "Empire State of Mind," fueling record sales of more than 100 million.

Image: A New York City bus with an advertisement for Jay-Z's anticipated new album "4:44"
A New York City bus with an advertisement for Jay-Z's anticipated new album "4:44" turns a corner in midtown New York City on June 29, 2017.Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images

But as he's groomed himself into more of a mogul over his career — opening nightclubs, building a fashion empire, a sports agency and a line of high-end champagnes — music was no longer at the forefront. He released his last album, "Magna Carta... Holy Grail," in 2013.

His relative silence, however, came with glimpses of more social and political activism, Kennedy said. That followed a bruising remark in 2012, when singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte said in an interview that today's celebrities such as Jay-Z and Beyoncé "have turned their back on social responsibility."

Besides being an open supporter of former President Barack Obama, Jay-Z produced a documentary series about a man who spent time on Rikers Island without ever being convicted of a crime. He is also reportedly producing projects about Trayvon Martin and another series about race for National Geographic.

Amid demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore following police-related deaths of black men, Jay-Z and Beyoncé reportedly gave money to bail out protesters.

"Social justice isn't a political issue," he wrote in a Hollywood Reporter guest column last week. "It's a human issue."

In September, Jay-Z narrated an op-ed video for The New York Times called "The War on Drugs Is an Epic Fail" and explained how outdated drug laws have only served as a pipeline to send African-Americans to jail.

Earlier this month, for Father's Day, he took on the bail industry in a piece he penned for TIME magazine, pleading for fixes to the system.

"When black and brown people are over-policed and arrested and accused of crimes at higher rates than others, and then forced to pay for their freedom before they ever see trial, big bail companies prosper," he wrote.

By launching Tidal to ensure he controls his profits, Jay-Z, now 47, shows a reluctance to let the larger music industry manipulate him, Kennedy said.The mogul released his new album exclusively on the platform.

This need to be a force for change appears to mirror the attitude of his wife, who has not shied away from racially charged messages in music videos and during performances, including at the Super Bowl in 2016 when she made a nod to Black Lives Matter and the Black Panthers.

But while Beyoncé doesn't stray far from the spotlight, Kennedy said, Jay-Z's ability to stay behind the scenes quietly while attempting to effect change is refreshing.

"There's not a lot of celebrities who can do that," he said.