Late Thursday night Jay-Z, who brought back the hyphen but not the umlaut, dropped 4:44, an album that on the first few listens is some of his best work in years. It seems to be an intensely personal project, with Jay rapping about cheating, his children, missed real estate property opportunities, and his therapist.
And his mother, Gloria Carter, gets equally personal on a lovely, Stevie Wonder-sampling song called “Smile,” where she appears alongside her son for the first time since The Black Album’s “December 4th.” In the first few verses, Jay raps about Carter’s sexuality, just in time for the last day of Pride Month:
Mama had four kids but she’s a lesbian
Had to pretend so long/she’s a thespian
Had to hide in the closet so she medicate
Society’s shame and the pain was too much to take
Cried tears of joy when you fell in love/Don’t matter to me if it’s a him or her
I just wanna see you smile through all the hate
Marie Antoinette, baby, let them eat cake
At the end of the track, Ms. Carter delivers a spoken word interlude describing the pain of her life in the closet, and ultimately resolving to liberate herself from “the shadow”:
Living in the shadow, can you imagine what kind of life it is to live?
In the shadows, people see you as happy and free, because that’s what you want them to see.
Living two lives, happy but not free. You live in the shadows for fear of someone hurting your family or the person you love.
The world is changing, and they say it’s time to be free.
But you live with the fear of just being me.
Living in the shadow feels like the safe place to be.
No harm for them, no harm for me.
But life is short and it’s time to be free.
Love who you love, because life isn’t guaranteed.
It’s truly beautiful, and also a benchmark, a reminder that the overall culture has become much more progressive even since 2003, when we last heard from her on an album. Hip-hop, which has been criticized as being intermittently homophobic through its earliest beginnings, has made new space for gender neutrality at the least (see: the progression from A$AP Rocky being mocked for wearing a “dress” in 2012, to Young Thug being praised for it in 2016) and at best, with mainstream acceptance of out LGBT artists like Young M.A. So it’s something like a barometer that a godfather of contemporary rap like Jay-Z feels safe and open enough to host his mother’s public coming-out while rapping about his unconditional support for her; it’s also one of the most touching things he’s done in years. (Or at least since he voiced his palpable excitement about his future twins on “Shining,” with Beyoncé and DJ Khaled.)
Again, 4:44 is so far a terrific album (we’ll have more on it at a later juncture, after we’ve had time to absorb it), and it is surprisingly confessional—of those cheating rumors, Jay apologizes to his wife and raps on “Kill JAY-Z”:
You egged Solange on, knowing all along all you had to say you was wrong
You almost went Eric Benet, let the baddest girl in the world get away...
I don’t even know what you woulda done, in the future, other niggas playing football with your son.
And on “Family Feud,” which features vocals from Beyoncé, he acknowledges “Becky with the good hair”:
Yeah, I’ll fuck up a good thing if you let me
Let me alone Becky!
4:44 is out now on Tidal.