Love is not war.
In love, there is no valor in wreaking havoc and emerging anew from the wreckage one has created. There is no honor in trifling and finding oneself thereafter. There is no deservedness in being untoward only to later see the error in your ways.
This is a tough sell to the entitled. Those who believe humaneness and love toward our partners is a gift rather than an obligation will inevitably expect praise for finally giving others what they are owed to begin with: respect, adoration, sincerity.
In this vein, JAY-Z’s most recent album, “4:44,” and, more specifically, its retroactively released footnotes, are providing listeners — particularly, black men — space to evaluate our own flaws, hurt and occasional ineptitude.
JAY-Z’s footnotes are being released weekly on TIDAL, and they offer on-camera ruminations from the artist and a host of notable colleagues on the subjects of his latest tracks. The first footnote released concerned “The Story of O.J.,” a song detailing the ways in which black men come to realize that society will use their blackness as a constraint, regardless of their celebrity. Stars from Will Smith to Chris Rock to Kendrick Lamar appear on grainy tape to chronicle the moments they came into this knowledge.
JAY-Z himself theorized the plight of black celebrities:
“We tend to, as black people — because we’ve never had anything, which is understandable — we get to a place and we just think we separate ourselves from the culture, you know? Like, O.J. will get to a space where he’s like, ’I’m not black, I’m O.J. Tiger Woods will get to a space where he thinks, ‘I’m above the culture.’ And that same person, when he’s playing golf and playing great, you’re protected. But when you’re not, they gon’ put pictures of you drunk driving and, like, embarrass you. That world will eat you up and spit you out.”
But it is the second released footnote, centered about the album’s title track, “4:44,” that delegates more time and space for reflection and cutting self-critique.
JAY-Z’s track “4:44” is, perhaps, the most honest and forthright iteration of the rapper listeners have ever heard, with references to his infidelity, his sorrow over inducing the conditions contributing to Beyoncé’s miscarriages, the shame he feels before his children, and the disgrace he heaped upon his family.
The ensuing footnotes were a visual catalog of self-admitted grime and sorrow.
“What I thought when I met my dad was, ‘Oh, I’m free to love now.’ But it’s like, OK, yeah, but how are you gonna do it? You wanna do it — I get it — now how are you gonna do it? You’ve never done this before. No one informed you how to do this. You don’t even have the tools to do it.”
From actor Anthony Anderson:
“I hear that I’m self-absorbed — that I think it’s always about me — that I’m selfish, controlling, all of the sh*t that we all hear, man.
Seeing the pain that I’ve caused my wife — seeing the pain that I’ve caused my children and my immediate family by my selfishness, by me wanting to be right, by me wanting what I want when it was just an unnecessary want and a primal urge and shit …”
From NBA player Chris Paul:
“People see your family. They see Instagram pictures of you smiling and happy and stuff all the time. They don’t think you’ve got real issues — you know what I mean? They don’t think you have to sleep back-to-back.”
From rapper Meek Mill:
“I had to learn how to treat somebody else as good as I wanted to treat myself ... I grew up in a household, like, the only person you know to treat good is your mom.”
From Jesse Williams, whose estrangement from his wife and subsequent relationship with actress Minka Kelly is currently drawing ire:
“I was in a relationship for 13 years — 13 real years. Like, not five years, not seven years; 13 years, and all of a sudden motherf**kers are writing think pieces that I somehow threw a 13-year relationship — like, the most painful experience I’ve had in my life with a person I’ve loved with all of my heart — that I threw a person and my family in the trash because a girl I worked with was cute.”
Through this lens, the “4:44” footnotes are potent, profound and important.
Rarely are black men — to be certain, black people more broadly — afforded the privilege of having our misbehavior indict none but ourselves before the eyes of our nation. Rarely are we granted opportunity to self-criticize in a way that does not damn other black men for our missteps.
But an inability to self-criticize, of course, is an untenable condition.
It excuses toxic behavior in relationships and leaves a wake of largely black women who love tenderly despite some of us boasting deep character flaws.
The greatest accomplishment of JAY-Z’s footnotes, then — and of “4:44” the album — is a subversion of these excuses.
Contrary to widespread acclaim, the most mature thing about JAY-Z’s album and its retroactive explainers is not its teachings of financial literacy and its boastful celebrations of excess. Ironically, it’s quite the opposite: it is mature in its rejection of excess ― at least, excess as the sole means to achieve happiness.
What we witness in these miniature therapy sessions is the admission of black male mortality in a fashion and space where doing so doesn’t carry the baggage of our nation’s racist stereotypes.
It is, simply, black men deliberating their plight and shortcomings freely, openly and without expressing inherent demands for forgiveness.
It is black men examining the futility of their manhood before the piercing gaze of lovers they’ve wronged.
In previous albums, JAY-Z’s mortality is threatened through physical violence — detractors seeking his head, governments plotting his incarceration, shoddy businessmen hoping to curb his acquisition of things. But he wrestles, in “4:44” and its footnotes, with a different mortality: the realization that even a man with all the worldly possessions he desires is not entitled to the love he seeks if he hasn’t a clue how to nurture it.
That he includes other black men, of note and normalcy, in these deep, difficult discussions signals the urgency of these matters and provides space for us to lay bare our trials before the eyes of the world.