Jay-Z’s jaunty anthems made him one of rap’s all-time greats and then, as he amassed a business empire and married fellow superstar Beyoncé, he drew an ever thicker curtain over his private life.
Releasing an album after a four-year gap, Jay-Z has bared himself like rarely before. He apologises to Beyoncé for cheating and pours out love for his mother whom he reveals to be lesbian, all while taking familiar but timely shots on the politics of race.
Jay-Z – who, apparently energised on punctuation, has restored his name’s hyphen – delivers a long-awaited public reply to Beyoncé who chastised him for infidelity on her acclaimed Lemonade album a year ago.
“I apologize / Our love was one for the ages and I contained us,” Jay-Z raps over a brassy Gospel refrain.
Beyoncé recently gave birth to twins, her father revealed on social media, although the family has yet to confirm details. Jay-Z on 4:44 suggests they conceived the twins naturally.
Jay-Z, discussing the album on iHeartRadio, said 4:44 was named for the time of morning when he woke up and wrote the song. He and Beyoncé have matching ring-finger tattoos of the Roman numeral “IV” – four being the day in different months of their wedding and both their birthdays.
On the soulful Smile, Jay-Z for the first time confirms hushed rumours that his mother is lesbian, explaining how she turned to substances to cope with the stigma.
“Mama had four kids but she’s a lesbian / Had to pretend so long, that she’s a thespian,” raps Jay-Z, who has spoken of how his father’s absence contributed to his troubled youth in public housing in Brooklyn.
“Don’t matter to me if it’s a him or her / I just want to see you smile through all the hate,” he raps.
Smile opens with a snippet from Stevie Wonder and closes with a poem by Jay-Z’s mother, Gloria Carter, who recites, “The world is changing and they say it’s time to be free / But you live with the fear of just being me.”
Jay-Z, who alongside Beyoncé campaigned for and became friends with former president Barack Obama, takes on race relations on The Story of O.J. and Moonlight as he concludes that African Americans will invariably be judged by their colour.
“We stuck in La La Land / Even when we win, we gonna lose,” he quips about this year’s Oscars mix-up in announcing best picture.
Jay-Z elsewhere throws veiled barbs at other rappers including onetime protégé Kanye West, who last year ranted against Jay-Z and in support of then president-elect Donald Trump before entering a hospital.
Jay-Z has especially harsh words for the estate of pop icon Prince, a longtime rebel in the music industry who had signed a deal with Tidal shortly before his death.