By Miguel Garcia & Brendan Varan / DJBooth
4:44 is a story not of reinvention, but one of recalibration. JAY-Z doesn’t kill Hyphenless Hov at the beginning of the album to venture into new sonic realms and recreate his persona. Instead, it’s a way of doubling-down on what works for JAY-Z, soul samples over slow beats by today’s standards, and using that as a space to explore inward.
Songwriter who co-wrote songs with Jerry Peters for psychedelic soul group, The Friends of Distinction, including “Going in Circles,” sampled in “MaNyfaCedGod.” Also wrote “Boogie Down” and “Keep on Truckin’” for Eddie Kendricks.
Composer: “Kill Jay Z”
Twentieth century English musician, record producer, and engineer who first worked on The Beatles’ Abbey Road at 18. He began assisting at Abbey Road Studios in 1967 and would produce and engineer for Pink Floyd, Pilot, and Ambrosia for most of the following decade until he started The Alan Parsons Project with producer/songwriter Eric Woolfson. No I.D. samples The Alan Parsons Project’s 1977 track “Don’t Let It Show” for “Kill Jay Z,” looping Parson’s lyric “when they say I’m to blame,” specifically honing into the ‘blame’ as the loop progresses, which sets the tone for JAY-Z’s reckoning with himself on 4:44.
Composer, songwriter, and producer. Co-wrote Fugees’ “Fu-Gee-La,” which is sampled on “Moonlight,” and has also written for Ciara, Ma$e, Teena Marie, and Trey Songz.
Featured Artist, Composer: “Family Feud”
Her contributions are small, simple affirmations and echoing ad-libs, but they’re nods to her struggles on Lemonade and it fits for an album touted as JAY-Z’s most mature. Coming off the heels of his “4:44” revelations, BEYONCÉ’s additions here are the couple’s way of acknowledging speculation without entertaining it or offering details. That might be the most grown statement of the album.
Blue Ivy Carter
Featured Artist: “Blue’s Freestyle/We Family” / Additional Vocals: “Legacy”
Daughter of JAY-Z and BEYONCÉ. At just six years old, she captivated music fans with her minute-long freestyle. Some statements here are profound in their simplicity. Sufi mystics and Zen Buddhists have puzzled through the aphorism “everything is everything” for centuries and now it’s Blue Ivy’s turn to give her take.
Christopher Breaux (Frank Ocean)
Featured Artist, Composer: “Caught Their Eyes”
For Christopher Breaux, more formally known as Frank Ocean, 2017 was uniquely impactful. Fans were still reeling over Endless and Blonde, ecstatic at the chance to see them performed live. He also dropped four loosies that kept his name in media circulation, rewriting his mythology of hoarding music. “Caught Their Eyes,” much like Tyler, The Creator’s “911/Mr. Lonely,” was a way for Ocean to expand the utility of his features. “9/11” was an exercise in brightness, but for “Caught Their Eyes,” No I.D. twists an idyllic Nina Simone sample to give the instrumental a sense of encroaching darkness. Frank matches with his chorus on solipsism and capitalism, though it’s easy to miss enjoying his nonchalant lean into the sample.
Crystal Rovel Torres
Musician (trumpet, piano, programming, production) and singer originally from Philadelphia. Her trumpet and flugelhorn work graces “Bam” here, but you’ve also heard her work on Lupe Fiasco’s “Adoration of the Magi.” Torres has toured the world with BEYONCÉ’s Sugamama band.
Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley
Featured Artist, Composer: “Bam”
Youngest son of reggae icon, Bob Marley, and accomplished solo artist best known for his 2005 single “Welcome to Jamrock,” Damian gives “Bam” his interpretation of Jacob Miller’s 1975 song “Tenement Yard” featuring the Inner Circle. Originally a Rastafari anthem lamenting the oppressive nature of institutions, Damian uses its vocabulary to posture up JAY-Z’s admitted ego fluffing in the “Bam” chorus. JAY-Z is the “gangsta,” a “rude boy” stuffing millions in sock drawers while toting assault rifles, and Marley’s diction bleeds a flexing swagger into JAY-Z’s flow. Damian Marley keeps active recording and touring, and released his fourth studio album Stony Hill, in July 2017.
Dion Wilson (No I.D.)
Composer, Producer: “Kill Jay Z,” “The Story of O.J.,” “Smile,” “Caught Their Eyes,” “4:44,” “Family Feud,” “Bam,” “Moonlight,” “Marcy Me,” “Legacy,” “Blue’s Freestyle/We Family,” “Adnis,” “MaNyfaCedGod”
Famously known as No I.D., a producer from Chicago that began his career in the late ‘80s. Has credits with Big Sean, Common, Kanye West, and countless others. In his recent Rolling Stone feature, No I.D. says making 4:44 was like “scoring the life of Shawn Carter” and he’s right about the cinematic quality he brings to production. The sample-drenched instrumentals are coated in tight drum patterns that work better on midnight freeways than a club setting. No I.D. shies away from “four-bar loops,” a slight coined by legendary producer Quincy Jones, instead using “samples as instruments” to accent tonal differences across tracks. He can indulge the rattly hi-hats over Stevie Wonder harmonizing (“Smile”) and reinterpret reggae anthems to let JAY-Z flex for four minutes (“Bam”). What’s central to every track on 4:44 is JAY-Z, and it’s clear No I.D.’s purpose is to coax Mr. Carter into fresh spaces of vulnerability and reflection.
Producer, Composer: “MaNyfaCedGod”
One half of UK electronic duo Mount Kimbie with Kai Campos. Made their mark in the late 2000s dance era craze and became known for their exploratory sounds and engaging live shows. Maker has been collaborating with James Blake throughout the years, meeting him in college, and featuring Blake in their early live shows. His presence accounts for the psychedelic timbre of the first half of “MaNyfaCedGod.”
In 1973, when Donny Hathaway promised “we’d all be free,” JAY-Z was four years old. Forty-three years later, JAY-Z is using the renowned jazz artist’s soothing voice to expound his own path to freedom: legacy, specifically a capitalist-centric one. Doc Zeus opens up his piece on 4:44 with the following: “If JAY-Z’s career has a unifying theory, it’s an evangelical belief in entrepreneurial capitalism as a path towards self-improvement.” JAY-Z has realized a unique kind of freedom with his net worth and Hathaway’s horns on “Someday, We’ll All Be Free” provide an endearing backdrop for promising his daughter she’ll continue that legacy.
Wrote “Someday, We’ll All Be Free” with Donny Hathaway. At the time, Hathaway was suffering from depression and possibly undiagnosed schizophrenia. Of that song, Howard says: “What was going through my mind at the time was Donny, because Donny was a very troubled person. I hoped that at some point he would be released from all that he was going through. There was nothing I could do but write something that might be encouraging for him.”
Composer: “Family Feud”
It’s rare that two syllables can make a track, but the middle Clark sister’s “Ha ya,” a chant seeking eternal life from the 1980 track of the same name, sets the reconciliatory tone for “Family Feud.” A member of The Clark Sisters, a gospel group composed of five sisters, Elbernita, affectionately referred to as Twinkie, began singing with her family in the late 1960s. To this day, they are still the highest-selling female gospel group of all time.
Composer: “Kill Jay Z”
Scottish songwriter, lyricist, vocalist, producer, pianist, and, most importantly for JAY-Z fans, co-founder of The Alan Parsons Project. Ventured into stage production and musical theatre later in his career.
Composer: “The Story of O.J.”
Record producer, writer, and executive for late ‘60s to early ‘80s R&B label De-Lite Records. Signed Kool & the Gang and wrote/produced many of their tracks. He also has a writer credit for “Kool is Black” by Funk, Inc., from which No I.D. pulls the sharp drum sample for “The Story of O.J.”
Featured Artist: “Smile”
Mother of Shawn Carter, more famously known as JAY-Z. Her touching monologue at the end of “Smile” provides context for this ballad about JAY-Z accepting his mother’s sexuality (“Mama had four kids, but she’s a lesbian / Had to pretend so long that she’s a thespian”).
Lead singer for Jamaican reggae group Inner Circle, Jacob Miller’s “Tenement Yard” provides the skeletal frame for Damian Marley’s hook. Tragically, Miller was killed in a car accident in 1980 at only 27, but his “Tenement Yard” continues to influence contemporary music. The beat is popular among neo-roots acts Chronixx and Jesse Royal. Ian Lewis, a bass player for Inner Circle, said of Miller’s funeral in Saint Catherine, Jamaica: “There were thousands a people on the road singing ‘Tenement Yard’. Jakes was really the people’s singer.”
Featured Artist, Producer, Instrumentalist, Composer: “Adnis,” “MaNyfaCedGod” / Featured Artist: “MaNyfaCedGod”
English singer/songwriter known for his skeletal production style. Early work drew heavily from UK dance and bass music, while his more recent work dabbles in the genres of soul and ambient. In 2016, Blake worked with Mrs. Carter, who employed the 29-year-old for Lemonade stand out “Forward.”
Vocal Producer: “4:44” / Additional Vocals: “Legacy”
Producer, songwriter, and singer from Inglewood, Calif. Rose to prominence in the early 2010s for writing and co-writing songs for Rihanna and Justin Timberlake, which would lead to him collaborating with Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Big Sean, and G.O.O.D. Music, among others. Currently the president of Los Angeles’ 1500 or Nothin’ musical ensemble.
Musician and songwriter most famous for writing hits for psychedelic soul group, The Friends of Distinction. With respect to 4:44, Peters wrote “Going in Circles” and its melancholy guitar plucking signal the crescendo of “MaNyfaCedGod.”
Composer: “The Story of O.J.”
Composer/writer for Kool & the Gang and Funk, Inc.
Trombonist, pianist, and composer/arranger from Berkeley, Calif. Has worked with Leonard Cohen, The Game, Ed Sheeran, and Anderson .Paak before his work on 4:44. Levine graduated from UCLA’s ethnomusicology jazz composition program and then accepted a position as music teacher at Fusion Academy Miracle Mile where he currently resides. He is a founding member of Los Angeles-based bands Aditya Prakash Ensemble, LNJO, the Katalyst, and leads his own six-piece group, the Jonah Levine Collective. His trombone was one of the many horns on “Bam” that transport you to its sample’s serene roots.
Composer: “Marcy Me”
Portuguese singer/composer and co-founder of Quarteto 1111, a groundbreaking group for progressive, symphonic rock in Portugal. The light keys that stutter and twinkle behind JAY-Z’s “Marcy Me” verses come from their gorgeous 1970 track “Todo o Mundo e Ninguém.”
Little is known about Kanan Keeney, the English songwriter responsible for writing “Late Nights & Heartbreaks.” Sung by the emotive Hannah Williams, No I.D. chops her bellow on “Late Nights” so that it sounds penitent for JAY-Z’s confession. “Late Night” and “4:44” are the only songs Keeney is credited for in most sources. Williams says, of his involvement, “I think [he] was reflecting on personal stuff”. Whoever mistreated Kanan to spark a reflection like this is indirectly responsible for JAY-Z’s most revealing song of the album.
Musician from Memphis, TN who added tenor sax to “Bam.” Accomplished saxophonist who has worked with Diddy, JAY-Z in the past (“Roc Boys”), Frank Ocean and Big K.R.I.T. (“Might Not Be OK”). Also has a solo project released in July 2017 titled Broken Land.
Additional Vocals: “4:44”
Gospel singer from Houston, Texas. Has released seven albums in her thirty-year career and made contributions to R&B and funk albums for Missy Elliott and George Clinton. She started a church in 2010, The Love & Liberty Fellowship Pentecostal Overcoming Holy Church, and is currently the Senior Eldress.
The fact producers still sample “Fu-Gee-La” is a testament to Lauryn Hill’s dynamism. Originally one-third of the Fugees, along with Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel, Hill has also prospered as a solo artist. In 1998, her The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill album sold over 18 million copies worldwide and earned her a GRAMMY® for Album of the Year, the first hip-hop record to receive this award. For “Moonlight,” No I.D. samples the first “ooh-la-la” from “Fu-Gee-La,” as opposed to the “ooooh-la-la-la-la-lalala” that 808-Ray and Cool Dre flipped for “Nas Album Done.” This gives a misty backdrop for Hov’s reclusive delivery.
Mary Brockert (Teena Marie)
It’s only fitting that the “Moonlight” sample of “Fu-Gee-La” would itself be an interpolation of a prior track. Buried in her unmistakable “ooh-la-la-la” are ripples of the soulful Teena Marie, the late 20th century R&B singer, from her song of the same name. Her melismatic vocal dynamism allowed her to stretch contemporary ideas of how notes fit together and process. She passed away in 2010, but left a legacy that touched performers, musicians, athletes, and anyone with feelings.
Songwriter, co-wrote “Pillow Talk” with Sylvia Robinson, sampled in “MaNyfaCedGod.”
Instrumentalist: “Bam,” “Marcy Me,” “Legacy”
Multi-instrumentalist that’s been featured on work for Logic, Kesha, Banks, and Jahkoy. His piano work for “Marcy Me” gives the track its sentimental texture. Mercereau also chips in on french horn (“Bam”) and Moog synthesizer (“Blue’s Freestyle/We Family”).
Composer: “The Story of O.J.”
It’s impossible to catalogue the importance of Nina Simone in this short space. The North Carolina-born singer’s rapturing tales of racial tension, mortality, and her struggles with mental illness supply an endless source of samples, both haunting and moving. To craft his tale, JAY-Z pulls from Simone’s 1966 Wild is the Wind cut “Four Women,” which tells the stories of different black women through the lens of contemporary stereotypes. The High Priestess of Soul uses her chilling voice to state “my skin is black” and looping that phrase allows JAY-Z to dig into his own account of racial stratification, fifty years after the words escaped Simone’s mouth.
Ophlin Russell (Sister Nancy)
More often known by her stage name, Sister Nancy, Ophlin Russell is a Jamaican dancehall singer whose 1982 “Bam Bam” fuels JAY-Z’s delivery on the verses for “Bam”. No I.D. pitches her voice up as she incants “bam, bam, bam,” throwing a sinister twist on a braggadocios track. The horns that guide her are also used here to complement the reggae aesthetic. In 2016, Sister Nancy retired from her job in the banking sector and says she plans on releasing more music and touring again after a long hiatus.
The second third of the Fugees. First met Lauryn Hill in 1987 at Columbia High School in New Jersey and would later introduce her to Wyclef Jean. Once the group disbanded in 1997, Pras began a solo career and explored his film interests, notably staring in Turn It Up alongside Ja Rule. For the last decade and a half, he’s been making documentary films on topics such as Haitian elections, Somali pirates, and even spending nine days homeless in Los Angeles’ Skid Row district to capture the realities of homelessness.
Composer: “Caught Their Eyes”
Though No I.D. and JAY-Z chose to use the less somber Nina Simone version, singer/musician Randy Newman is here because of his writing on her 1978 cover of “Baltimore.” His observations of palpable trauma on the streets of Baltimore aren’t particularly groundbreaking, but the tension he creates in the buildup to the chorus was transferred even through Simone’s reworking. Known for his dark, comedic, and often satirical writing style, Newman has had continued success scoring films since the 1980s, including Disney-Pixar classics Toy Story and A Bug’s Life.
Co-wrote “Tenement Yard” with Jacob Miller and guitarist for Inner Circle.
Ron Gilmore Jr.
Vocoder: “Marcy Me”
Nashville native Ron Gilmore Jr. has capitalized off his experiences touring as the keyboardist for Lauryn Hill and J. Cole. A musician in his own right, releasing The Maturation of Little Ron in 2016, Gilmore’s gospel-influenced production and singing has contributed to J. Cole projects since Cole World: The Sideline Story. For “Marcy Me,” he handles the vocoder work for The-Dream’s outro, a hymnal of depravity.
Salaam Remi Gibbs
Salaam Remi, the song’s producer, has worked closely with acts like Nas, Fergie, and Miguel, as well as the late Amy Winehouse. He puts his characteristic reggae flair on most tracks and “Fu-Gee-La” is no different. During recording sessions for Spike Lee’s Clockers movie, Remi pulled up a track he’d initially made for Fat Joe at Wyclef Jean’s request. Jean immediately spit a verse over it, the track was built from there, and Remi immortalized himself in hip-hop.
Shawn Carter (JAY-Z)
Artist, Composer: “Kill Jay Z,” “The Story of O.J.,” “Smile,” “Caught Their Eyes,” “4:44,” “Family Feud,” “Bam,” “Moonlight,” “Marcy Me,” “Legacy,” “Blue’s Freestyle/We Family” “Adnis,” “MaNyfaCedGod” / Co-Producer: “The Story of O.J.,” “Smile,” “Caught Their Eyes,” “Moonlight,” “Legacy,” “Blue’s Freestyle/We Family”
There’s a reason Shawn Carter used deity terminology to create his “Hov” appellation. Like a many-faced god, he’s manifested himself for the last 20 years in the expanding and increasingly confusing world of hip-hop. With respect to 4:44, his aim was openness — openness to the nudgings of No I.D., openness to his fans, and a willingness to let that transparency dictate his standing in the current pantheon of rap OGs.
Composer: “Blue’s Freestyle / We Family”
Better known as Toto La Momposina, Bazanta is a Colombian singer active since the ‘60s. Known for her dynamic voice and unpredictable live performances, her work on the 1984 single “La Verdolaga” peppers “Blue’s Freestyle/We Family.”
Instrumentalist: “The Story of O.J.,” “Bam,” “Marcy Me,” “Blue’s Freestyle/We Family”
Multi-instrumentalist from the Bay Area. Added guitar, bass, synthesizers and more to 4:44. Longtime touring guitarist for Keyshia Cole. Since 2010, Wyreman has been more focused on production, working with No I.D. for most of the last decade. You’ve heard his work on Rick Ross’ “Tears of Joy,” where his trance-like guitar riffs permeate the backdrop.
A winner of 25 GRAMMY® Awards (as well as a GRAMMY® Lifetime Achievement Award), Stevie Wonder has remained one of the most celebrated musical minds ever, a commercial powerhouse who shifted the course of modern music with a string of acclaimed releases in the 1970s. The Saginaw, Michigan-born songwriter and multi-instrumentalist landed his first record deal at age 11 and has released dozens of albums since, ranging from “Superstition” home Talking Book to the soft, exclusively instrumental Eivets Rednow. His work is also a frequent source for sampling fiends. The warm, melodic sample for “Smile,” mostly comprised of hums from his 1976 “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” allows Hov to open up about his mother’s situation and vocalize his support.
Affectionately known as the “Mother of Hip-Hop.” Founder of Sugar Hill Records and responsible for “Rapper’s Delight” by Sugarhill Gang. She enjoyed a nice solo career as a singer too, releasing the hit “Pillow Talk,” originally written and passed on by Al Green “MaNyfaCedGod” uses Robinson’s sultry utterances on “Pillow Talk” to punctuate the dead space.
Terius Nash (The-Dream)
Composer, Additional Vocals: “Marcy Me”
The end of “Marcy Me” finds JAY-Z reckoning with what he’ll never change, and Terius Nash, also referred to as The-Dream, provides the inflection Hov needs to make this part. Originally a songwriter for Britney Spears, Rihanna, and BEYONCÉ, among others, Nash has been releasing solo music and contributing to others’ work for the better part of the last two decades.
Composer: “Marcy Me”
The other writer for Quarteto 1111’s “Todo o Mundo e Ninguém,” Tozé Brito has been writing and performing since he was 14. In 1969, he met José Cid while living in Lisbon and joined Quarteto 1111. Though he pursued solo work and formed other bands, Quarteto remains a defining part of his legacy, and Brito recently received a medal of cultural merit from the Municipality of Coimbra in Portugal for his work with the band.
One of the most successful reggae producers of all time, Winston Riley is responsible for putting on Buju Banton, Lone Ranger, Frankie Paul, as well as Sister Nancy, whose “Bam Bam” was sampled for Hov’s reworking and also to whom Riley was married.
The final third of the Fugees, Wyclef Jean was born in Haiti in 1969. After emigrating to the United States, he formed Fugees in the late ‘80s with Lauryn Hill and Pras Michel. Since the group split in ‘97, Jean has enjoyed a successful solo career, releasing eleven albums and starring in feature film roles.