Endnotes to “4:44”

“I apologize, often womanize. Took for my child to be born. See through a woman’s eyes.”

On June 30, 2017, Jay-Z (Shawn Carter) released his 13th studio album 4:44, arguably the most personal and socially conscious album of his career. Subscribers to his online streaming service, Tidal, are privy to music videos for the songs on the album. They also have access to a series of documentary film shorts directed by Neal Brennan, the co-creator of Chappelle’s Show (2003-2006). These mini-documentaries consist of interviews with Jay-Z and various famous black men about the themes explored in the album. In the following article I will analyze the music video and the accompanying mini-documentary, Footnotes to “4:44.”

Love and Compromise

The music video for “4:44” is artistic, humorous, irritating, and utterly confounding. After watching album’s first music video, “The Story of O.J.”, which follows a succinct narrative and provides a historical lesson on race relations worthy of display in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), I was disappointed with this video. The primary subjects in the video are a black man and woman whose dance moves and facial expressions emote the pain exuded in this song. The video goes wrong when the director weaves in various clips from social media, the nightly news, concerts, and past interviews. While I am sure that the director was trying to make a point with these images, for me, they were quite distracting. The video does have a few defining moments such as the opening which includes an excerpt from the 1982 documentary All by Myself: The Eartha Kitt Story.

The actress Eartha Kitta shares her thoughts on relationships. She asks the interviewer why she should be expected to compromise for a man to love her. “Falling in love is great, but it has to be done for the right reasons,” she says. Kitt’s interview serves as a bookend to the video’s conclusion which features a scene of Jay-Z and his wife Beyonce performing on their 2014 “On the Run” tour. The sound of their performance is muted as Al Green sings in the background. The screen fades to a hue of blue before stopping on an image of their daughter Blue Ivy at the video’s conclusion. Jay-Z and Beyonce have one of the world’s most public relationships. As we now know from the famous elevator incident with Solange, Beyonce’s womanist magnum opus of an album, Lemonade, and Jay-Z’s Usher-like “confessions” on 4:44, their marriage was not built on complete honesty. Beyonce was asked to compromise for a man who did not always honor his vows. These themes of love, relationships, marriage, compromise, and loyalty are explored in substantial detail in the video’s companion piece, Footnotes to “4:44”.

I Apologize’ cause at your best you are love

My favorite Jay-Z album is The Blueprint (2001). Although 4:44 lacks the lyrical acuity found in The Blueprint, this new album shows how much Jay-Z has grown as a man. On The Blueprint a cocky Jay-Z was rapping about “Girls, Girls, Girls.”

“Yo put your number on this paper cause I would love to date ya. Holla at ya when I come off tour.”

The music video for “Girls, Girls, Girls,” displayed a then single Jay-Z encircled by a bevy of beautiful woman. The Blueprint also gave us “Song Cry,” which was his most revelatory song about relationships prior to this new album. In the music video for that song Jay-Z’s fictional wife comes home to find drunken women passed out on the floor of their mansion after a wild night of partying. By the song’s third verse the wife is packing up her bags and calling for a divorce as Jay-Z unsuccessfully attempts to prevent her from leaving him. Yet, through it all, he is still not very apologetic or remorseful.

“Sh_t I’m a man with pride, you don’t do sh_t like that. You don’t just pick up and leave and leave me sick like that. You don’t throw away what we had, just like that. I was just f_ _kin them girls, I was gon’ get right back…. I can’t see ‘em coming down my eyes, so I gotta make the song cry.”

Jay-Z makes it clear from the beginning of 4:44 that he is a changed man. He states so in the album’s opening track, “Kill Jay-Z,”. No more “Big Pimpin”. No more love em, leave em, cause he doesn’t need em. At the age of 47 he has a reached a state of emotional maturity that he had been lacking prior to the threat of losing his marriage and his children. This is the backdrop for the Tidal film Footnotes to “4:44”. The 11 minute documentary features Jay-Z sitting in a room with other famous black men sharing their thoughts on love and relationships. The film also has clips of men speaking who were not present for the discussion group.

NBA icon LeBron James tried to do something similar on his online platform, Unscripted, with a mini-documentary called “The Shop.” In my opinion LeBron’s attempt to show black men speaking candidly fell flat. It was LeBron and his buddies (Maverick Carter, Rich Paul, Steve Stout, 2 Chainz, Draymond Green, and others) sitting in a New Orleans barbershop drinking fine wine as they discussed sports, hip-hop, and business. “The Shop” was what we come to expect from black men in public settings. LeBron and friends came across the screen as powerful, manly, full of swagger, and unapologetic about their greatness. Seriously, who sips fine wine at a barbershop? I have heard these conversations before in the privacy of a friend’s home or a men’s ministry meeting at church. But with the exception of Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, Drake’s discography, and R&B ballads the public rarely is privy to such discourse. It was so refreshing to hear these brothers pour out their hearts and souls. The following quotes are worth noting:

“One of my biggest fears is to end up being alone. Not having what my mom and dad have.”
-Michael B. Jordan

“They’re some 55-year-old men who I deem more of a boy who are still in the nightclub and you know as well as I that they aren’t trying to holler at anything that is challenging. They’re still trying to frolic with young girls that only excite one part of themselves.”
-Omari Harwick

“What I thought when I met my dad was ‘oh, I am free to love now’ but it’s like yeah, okay, how are you going to do it. You’ve never done this before. No one informed you how to do this.”

“I’m a real ni_ _a. I am real person, but you’re doing a lot of bulls_ _t that’s not real. How we grew up, older guys taught us all the wrong sh_t.”
-Tyran “Ty-Ty” Smith

“I had to learn to treat someone else as good as myself.”
-Meek Mill

“I do think that the relationship between black men and black women is complicated because of the black man’s historical inability to protect them. Complicated by black men’s seemingly unwillingness to raise their families.”
-Unknown speaker

“In a relationship either you’re learning or you’re not learning. And I think relationships fail when you stop learning. When you stop being able to learn together that’s when the fall apart.”
-Mahershala Ali

Developing compassion requires putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.”
-Kendrick Lamar

“In Islam they say you don’t know who you are until you get married. A man doesn’t know himself. You being inside of that is going to reveal things that you didn’t know were in you.”
-Unknown speaker

“The idea of being 100 percent honest is terrifying, not just because of what I have to be honest about, but the scarier part is what I might have to hear.”
-Kenya Barris

“I hear that I’m self-absorbed, uhhhhh, that I think it’s always about me. I am selfish, controlling.”
-Anthony Anderson

“And if my children knew, I don’t even know what I would do… You did what with who? What good is a menage a trois when you have a soulmate?”

When I turned 30-years-old I was in the same mindset of Michael B. Jordan. My grandparents were married for more than 50 years. I watched my grandma take care of my granddad after he lost a leg. I watched her prepare him for dialysis three mornings a week. They loved each other until their dying day. My parents have been married since the 1970s. Marriage is a sacred commitment in my eyes. I question my students who talk about moving in with their mates and getting married by the age of 23. How are you able to be someone’s spouse when you are still figuring out yourself? Jay-Z has a line in “4:44” in which he says that Beyonce matured faster than him. He proposed before he was ready for such a commitment. At same time I worry that if I wait too much longer I will never say “I do”.

Whenever I watch my best friend with his wife and daughter this fear becomes increasingly magnified. What if that type of lifestyle is not what God has planned for me? I do not want to just date forever or be the old dude “in da club” at 40. I used to admire one of my more athletic friends from high school because women flocked to him, like Trey Songz, when we use to regularly hang out. Ten years ago it was cool for all the employees at Washington, D.C.’s hottest nightclubs to know him by name. Now whenever he talks about going to the club I shake my head in agreement with Power’s Omari Hardwick. At some point we have to be mature enough to desire real, not superficial, romantic relationships. Neither ego nor loneliness is an excuse for reckless, immature behavior after a certain age.

Various themes run throughout the comments given by these men:

1) Love must be modeled. Many of these men admit that they failed at love because no one ever taught them how to love. My ex-girlfriend shared a book with me by Gary Chapman entitled The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate (1995). Chapman teaches that we must realize that people experience love differently and our mate may speak in a different love language from our own. Most guys are not going to take time to read a book such as this. I was fortunate enough to have fatherly figures and married couples that I could learn from as I was growing up. But men like Jay-Z and Meek Mill grew up in fatherless homes. They lived in communities plagued by violence. The hustlers, pimps, and playas were the surrogate fathers and role models in these communities. Jay-Z says in the film that while these men were impeccable when it came to street life, they were deficient in the department of love and emotion. Social scientists Richard Majors and Janet Mancini Billson addressed hip-hop’s exaggerated and ritualized masculinity in their 1992 book Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America.

Majors and Billson argued that black males adopt a cool pose (a set of aloof attitudes, language, truculent mannerisms, swagger, and bodily movements) to mask fear and feelings of powerlessness. Real men must be hard at all times. Feminist scholar bell hooks writes in her study of masculinity, We Real Cool (2003,) that black males are taught to embrace violent and sexist behavior. Culture critic Ta-Nehisi Coates, on the other hand, argues that this cool pose is a signifier for a culture of self-preservation for these endangered males. Jay-Z has long been celebrated for his cool demeanor. “Jay-Z, like so many black men – had to construct an impenetrable armor to survive, much less thrive,” says Gerald Bush and Christopher Renz, the directors of the “Kill Jay-Z” music video. But this aloof attitude is often associated with an inability to fully express emotion. “I can’t see ‘em coming down my eyes, so I gotta make the song cry,” he rapped 16 years ago.

(2) The breakdown of the African-American family has cast a shadow on generations of black men. By 1965 the unemployment rate for black males, welfare enrollment, and crime in urban areas were on a steady rise. Blacks were having children at a rate 25 percent higher than whites. Furthermore, the number of black families headed by single mothers reached a disturbing rate in the eyes of the federal government. During his June 4, 1965, commencement address at Howard University President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed that “Negro” poverty resulted from the breakdown of the nuclear family. Johnson’s Secretary of Labor, sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan, published a report using data from black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier in The Negro Family in the United States (1939) as his foundation. Frazier had blamed slavery and Jim Crow for the absence of a healthy two-parent structure in most black homes.

The 1940 census showed a larger proportion of black families headed by single women in the rural and urban South. In northern cities with a total population of 100,000 or more, thirty percent of the black families had single female heads. There were several causes for the absence of black fathers. In many cases men had sired children out of wedlock. In other cases the men deserted their families to find work. “The Moynihan Report” ended up stereotyping and blaming single black mothers for poverty, violence, drug abuse, and other pathologies. The report helped to spread the misnomer that black men are absentee husbands and fathers. As a result it was a godsend to see television patriarchs such as James Evans (Good Times) and Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable (The Cosby Show). Unfortunately, these fictional characters were the only fathers that many black boys had to guide them. This reality speaks to Jay-Z’s point about not knowing how to properly love someone else or be in a committed relationship. He and his best friend Ty-Ty had to look to the hustlers and playas on the block for (mis)guidance.

(3) Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The film begins with the camera zooming in on comedian Chris Rock. Rock only appears in these opening seconds. Like fellow Brooklyn native Jay-Z, he is no stranger to infidelity. Rock and his wife Malaak divorced last year after 19 years of marriage. On his Total Blackout tour Rock admits to cheating on her with three women: one famous, one semi-famous, and one in retail. “I was a piece of sh_t,” Rock told his adoring fans in the audience. Black-ish star Anthony Anderson expresses a similar sentiment in Footnotes. At times he sounds like he is sitting across from a therapist. Anderson is very contrite about his infidelity which caused his wife Alvina, of 20 years, to file for divorce. She canceled the divorce proceedings in January 2017. The most notable confession in the film is that of Grey’s Anatomy star and Black Lives Matter activist Jesse Williams who is in the midst of a divorce and custody battle with his wife Aryn Drake-Lee. The couple was married for five years after eight years of dating. Williams is still married, but now dating actress Minka Kelly.

“I was in a relationship 13 years. All of a sudden mother_ _ers are writing think pieces that I somehow threw away a 13 year relationship, like I threw a person and my family in the trash because a girl I work with is cute.”
-Jesse Williams

I went to see the new film Girl Trip (2017) on its opening weekend in theaters. It felt like being at a black woman’s retreat. These sistas in the audience laughed, cried, and partied with the women in this film. The film had three male characters. Larenz Tate played the good guy. Queen Sugar’s Kofi Siriboe was the hunk that all the ladies in the theater went crazy over. And finally Mike Colter, from Netflix’s Luke Cage, was the retired professional athlete cheating on his beautiful wife played by Regina Hall. Colter’s character gets his younger side piece, a voluptuous Instagram model, pregnant. His wife put up with his infidelity for years and it took an Essence Festival getaway with her homegirls to make her value her worth. The film ends with her giving a motivational speech to a room full of mostly women about valuing themselves and not staying in unfulfilled relationships. She told them not to allow a man to use them emotionally or sexually. At the end of her speech many of the women in theater began applauding. Obviously, this film hit a nerve with many of the women in the theater. While some guys may not present this way, its portrayal of black men is a reality for many of our sistas.

(4) Relationships are hard work. Moonlight’s Academy Award winning actor Mahershala Ali eloquently reminds black men that they must be willing to do the hard work if they are to be successful at love. They must be willing to learn from their girlfriends, fiances, or wives if they want the relationship to grow and last. But relationships are difficult because they require complete honesty and loyalty. Kenya Barris, creator of Black-ish, is correct when he says that as men we sometimes fear hearing those uncomfortable truths. “There’s some sh_t you don’t want to know about your partner,” says Will Smith. I am sure that Smith is speaking from personal experience given the public revelations about the marital counseling he has gone through with his wife Jada. It was those moments of complete honesty that I struggled with in my previous relationship. I never wanted to hear my girl tell me that she was unhappy or what I was doing wrong. I was perfect in my own eyes.

Toyed with emotions because I was emotionless

As I listened to this song and watched Footnotes I was extremely moved. If I am being completely honest I could have been one of the members of Jay-Z’s focus group. My girlfriend broke up with me 19 days before this album was released. A few days before Footnotes was available on Tidal she emailed me an article by Candice Benbow titled “4:43.” Ms. Benbow said something really poignant in the article:
“Do we provide men like you with everything to become the men you want to be?…. There are far too many of us doing the emotional labor of birthing men we’ll never get to have and hold… We 0:00-0:43 girls aren’t supposed to have any country for men like you… we never got to “4:44” – all you gave us was “Song Cry.”

The article, along with Jay-Z’s song and videos, forced me to look at myself in the mirror and do a self-evaluation. It forced me to sit with my best friend and his wife, in their kitchen, until 1 AM analyzing my flaws. It forced me to consult with my pastor, who just so happened to be doing a series of sermons on dating and marriage. The song definitely cried for me a few times. My parents would ask,’Where is ________?’ Oh, “she is just busy or out of town” became my standard reply. I am not guilty of the wrongs committed by Jay-Z, Chris Rock, Anthony Anderson, and Jesse Williams. But, I am guilty of neglect and not being as emotionally invested as I should have. In the beginning my girl was a top priority. She was my rock and best friend. She was the only person that shared my love for history, Jay-Z albums, and Love Jones (1997). She was also the funniest person I knew. But as time passed I became complacent. I failed to make her feel beautiful and appreciated. I failed to return calls and I remained too friendly with an ex-girlfriend. While I was saving money for an engagement ring my actions did not show it. I would rather spend weekends working or watching football than spending quality time with her or watching house hunting shows together. I asked her to compromise more than I was willing to in return. Yes, I was afraid that I could not live up to the standards of marital bliss set by my parents and grandparents. However, that was not an excuse for me to make her feel like a “0:00-0:43 girl”. I want her back, but she probably deserves better. If she ever reads this – I am sorry!

Hov did that so hopefully you won’t have to go through that!

At the end of Footnotes Kenya Barris asks Jay-Z how Beyonce reacted to his confessions in “4:44.” He admits that it was the hardest thing that he has done in life, but it was necessary to save their marriage. The beauty of the closing scene in the “4:44” music video is that there is a sense of reconciliation. We see Jay-Z and Beyonce happily together on stage. We see Blue Ivy in all of her cuteness. This was the same feeling that came across the screen at the end of Beyonce’s Lemonade film. Although we hear her hurt and pain throughout the film, we see Beyonce and Jay-Z embracing in “Sandcastles” and “All Night.” The final four chapters of the Lemonade film are titled forgiveness, resurrection, hope, and redemption. The second sermon in my pastor’s series on relationship was called “Before I Say I Quit” (based on 1 Corinthians 7: 10-16). His thesis was that divorce is not a cure for a sick marriage. He cited James Dobson’s book Love Must Be Tough: New Hope for Marriages in Crisis (2007).

“As long as the marriage feels new and fresh we want it. Once it feels old we want out.”
-Rev. Maurice Watson

By making his own failures public, Jay-Z provided a platform for other black men to voice their inner thoughts about love and romantic relationships. Beyond just showing the world that black men are human, “4:44” reminds us brothers that it is okay to be emotional. More importantly it reminds us that if we want our romantic relationships to last we must be honest and do the hard work. We must be willing to compromise when necessary – it cannot be all about us. We must be willing to fight for love. We must be willing to listen, learn, and love.

“Nobody wins when the family feuds…. Can I get an “Amen” from the congregation? Amen, Amen.”
-Jay-Z and Beyonce

By Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D

Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D. is an associate professor of History and coordinator for the Social Studies Teacher Education Program at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.