Grown man raps: 4:44’s predecessors
We are now a few weeks removed from the one of the most prestigious awards that are handed out in entertainment. The 2018 GRAMMYs had fooled us into thinking this year's ceremony would be different from years past. With their nominations, the Recording Academy finally gave recognition to some of the lesser known music acts on a national scale. That hype was quickly dashed and short lived.
A similar tune of results was played as relatively safe picks won each major category without any notable upsets, just notable snubs. Snubs are to the award shows as loud irrational opinions are to a New York sports fan (guilty). A GRAMMY won't entirely make or break a career, but they're not completely worthless. Among the dozens of nominees in attendance that night, the most nominated artist came up trophy-less, in front of the world but more importantly, in front of his home turf. Brooklyn's Own JAY Z went 0 for 8 on January 28th, bringing home no hardware for transparent honesty on his most personal project to date, 4:44.
HOV's 13th studio album should not be remembered as just "the Lemonade response CD." While he does address the marital infidelity, there are many different grown ass topics the 48-year-old MC speaks on through the lens of a fully formed adult. "Kill JAY Z" was the first phrase to be uttered on 4:44, making way for Shawn Carter to enter with some commentary to impart wisdom and drop knowledge through the process for discovery of true self.
Putting aside the gaudy persona for a minute to openly speak about buried family secrets, fiscal responsibility, and the Black Community knowing and tapping into our valuable self-worth. Especially coming off the heals of his prior release, Magna Carta Holy Grail (Basquiat, Tom Ford, Basquiat again, etc.), 4:44 was an unexpectedly close and personal CD for a maturing legacy rapper. In the same vein as Denzel Washington's own passion project (Fences) at the Oscars, the critical acclaim was wide-spread, but the golden trophy was nowhere to be found for either legend.
A tweet came across my Timeline on that Sunday morning of the GRAMMYs. I agree with the last 3/4 of the message, but the opening sentence almost soured the entire point. Saying that rap "has never seen" is a gross oversight. 4:44 deserves all the praise and accolades that it has been given, but the album is not a novel concept within the genre; 4:44 had predecessors.
Prime examples of recent predecessors were created by two of his worthiest peers in the pen game, the versatile assassin, Phonte Coleman and QB's Finest, Nasir Jones. Charity Starts at Home and Life is Good were released in a 10-month span in 2011 and 2012. Direct parallels can be drawn about the subject matter of lyrics on these 3 albums. For the most part, for the length of an entire project, the rappers spit some honest truththrough an unfiltered perspective about some grown man shit: family life as they age.
Age is not entirely indicative of increased wisdom, experience, and knowledge. Yes, it is worth noting that it's commendable for someone this late in their career, nearing the age of 50, made a mature pivot from their normalcy.
But different life circumstances could create different experiences that force people to pivot earlier, in different ways, at a different time in their adult life.
In September of 2011, Phonte was only 32 years old when he made Charity Starts at Home, but he was a man with a family of his own and decade-plus of the music industry under his belt. Ever since the early days as a college student in North Carolina with Little Brother, Tigallo had always presented himself as an old soul with his raps filled with observational bars about the humor in life. He's kept things real with is wisecracks and advice about the good and bad that this life has to bring, mixed in with innocuous jokes to lighten the mood.
About a decade after his main crew's inception and a little less after the official start of his RnB campaign, Phonte branched off to do a solo hip-hop record of his own, the very first of his respected career. The focus of his observational bars was drawn inward, this time zooming in on the 3rd stanza of life: the navigation of relationships in your 30s as you creep towards middle age. Charity Starts at Home was an introspective look at the start of adulthood.
Not "I just graduated college and now I split rent with 7 roommates" adulthood, but "dawg, I started a family with the person I love, doing work in a career I hate, but mortgage payment is due in a week" type adulthood.
When you wake up this morningI want you to go to the mirrorAnd I want you to look at yourself in the eyes and sayFuck you, fuck your hopes, fuck your dreams, fuck all the good you thought this life was 'gon bring youNow lets got out there and make this bitch happy
Everybody prays for the day they see the lightBut the light at the end of the tunnel is a train
5 dollar gas, and poverty rates, are rising much higher than your hourly ratesSo if you thinkin 'bout quittin you should probably waitCuz everybody gotta do a fuckin job that they hate - Phonte, "The Good Fight"
Phonte stayed par for the course by knocking another joint out of the park but the mid-career pivot came from a wise and mature mindset that's again not solely indicative of age. Highly relatable lyrics about grindin' and hustlin' legally can put the listener in his shoes for the length of the project. Everyday adult shit gets touched on, from not wanting to wake up for work on a Monday to mending relationships before and while things may be falling apart.
In the hilarious, yet poignant outro of "Sending My Love," from a place of sincerity, he speaks about beating down the strong urges of cheating on his significant other, an extremely human feeling that circles the mind of anyone, even in the most committed of relationships. "C'mon, Tigallo, Be Strong!" becomes the mantra of the moment with the following inner monologue:
I know she get on your nerves sometimes
But man, you got a good woman at home, man
Just go home, it-it-it's 'bout 4:30
Ain'tnothin open this time of night but legs and hospitals
Just go home, just take it on home
Martin Luther King did not die for niggas to be trickin off on HOES, nigga
Just, just take it home (all my love to you) - Phonte, "Sending My Love"
Important topics and life lessons dealing with family were discussed on Charity Starts at Home. Phonte briefly puts down the cloak of a rap superhero, opened up the door to his home, and showed the general public how not easy it is to not only create a family but how difficult it is to keep the core of the nucleus intact. On the most basic level, it requires honest work and honest communication.
One of the main complaints from critics of 4:44 say the praise for the lifestyle and family advice was not life altering or super impactful. I disagree. With these kinds of projects, they're not supposed to be thesis papers using scientific data to reinvent the wheel. They offer a different side of rappers who share family principles that aren't a secret but serve as important reminders from time to time.
Storytelling has always been a major staple in the career of Nas. In his Book of Rhymes, Nas' "pen taps the paper" to create some vivid and detailed imagery from a pure lyricist standpoint. Life is Good, the 11th studio album by the Queens native, shares more career and biographic similarities with the creator of 4:44, but the content strongly remains comparable to Charity Starts at Home as well. Like Phonte, Nas was under 40 years old when creating his album, but the then-39-year-old had already lived out a full career at this point. 2 decades after his first official recording, with 2 children and 1 nasty divorce that still affects him to this day, Nas had experienced a great deal of triumph and adversity.
The heavily produced No I.D. and Salaam Remi project has an equally somber and rejuvenated balance to it both sonically and lyrically. Nas sounds energetic, refreshed and youthful. Aside from a few musical and topical misfires (*coughs in "Summer on Smash"*), Life is Good has a throwback sound in many spots on the album like genuinely upbeat tracks that captures the bounce of mid-90s NYC (i.e. "Reach Out" featuring Mary J. Blige). On the surface, Life is Good is a project that mixes old-school ideas with new school sensibilities as an older, matured individual. Nas, very transparently, shares details about having to deal with two dilemmas with two important women in his life: disciplining his teenage daughter and a divorce from his ex-wife, Kelis.
On "Daughters," an adult is facing a rewarding, yet terrifying time in the life of a father: the baby steps into the early stages into their child's adulthood. Nas created this song to speak directly to men out there that are also going through this father/daughter relationship. Not necessarily to the extent below, but he openly discusses potential hypocrisies that he notices from himself while trying to give the best possible advice to his daughter to make sure she lives her best possible life.
I saw my daughter send a letter to some boy her ageWho locked up, first I regretted it, then caught my rageLike, how could I not protect her from this awful phase?
Never tried to hide who I was, she was taught and raisedLike a princess, but while I'm on stage I can't leave her defenselessPlus she's seen me switchin' women, Pops was on some pimp shitShe heard stories of her daddy thuggin'
So if her husband is a gangster, can't be mad, I'll love him
Never, for her I want better, homie in jail – dead thatWait 'til he come home, you can see where his head's at - Nas, "Daughters"
Growth and self-awareness all come with time. Failures in life happen very often, but what you do with the detriment is key to success. Dwelling on something negative and not learning from the mistake or minor setback can leave you stuck. Whether you're going through a messy divorce or relationship problems, having trouble with how you fit in with new-aged people in your profession or the "chinks in the armor" is becoming more noticeable to the kids, life is going to throw you a curveball.
"No matter what, Life is Good" was repeated several times throughout the project. It's a simple and effective phrase that could be a subtle reminder during a rocky time.
Again, I don't believe the original tweet was completely off-base, just a bit heavy-handed when saying "the rap genre has NEVER seen an album like 4:44." We have seen the introspective, late career, soul music influenced, rap album that was critically praised. Charity Starts at Home and Life is Good are two high-quality examples of that from this past decade. This piece is not a subjective discussion about which grown man project was better. It's an objective reminder that 4:44 had predecessors.
Because hip-hop, comparatively speaking, is a newer genre in the grand scheme of things. We haven't seen all of the most popular stars reach the pantheon of JAY Z and Nas (with Phonte on the precipice). We don't have a Stevie Wonder...yet. We don't have a Mick Jagger...yet. Is the introspective rap trend from the game's legends the next trend? The next decade or so will be a telling factor on whether or not more of the critically acclaimed and legendary lyricists from the 90s will adopt the same model of being extremely honest and open about daily stressors for the length of an entire project. Fingers crossed for an Andre 3000 joint executively produced by Organized Noize.