Look, I apologize, often womanized
Took for my child to be born
To see through a woman’s eyes …
It’s the public apology some have been anticipating since the release of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, her seemingly confessional opus, almost entirely themed on surviving the pain of infidelity. Aside from being a groundbreaking hit, the visual album inevitably rekindled a flurry of questions about her marriage to Jay-Z, sparked by the infamous “billion dollars on an elevator incident” nearly two years before.
Did he? Didn’t he? Was it just a publicity stunt? Despite earlier rumors and artistic allusions to Jay-Z’s complicated relationship with monogamy (“Song Cry,” “Big Pimpin’” and “Girls, Girls, Girls,” to name a few), the questions were suddenly inextricable from the music, which seemed to offer a rare glimpse into the imperfect union of perhaps the most famous—and private—couple in the world. And because we are a nation of voyeurs, it was almost impossible to look away.
Jay-Z’s appearance in the intimate and painful visuals for the ballad “Sandcastles” seemed to confirm the rumors, throwing an unexpectedly tender lens onto a man whose success had been largely built upon infectious swagger anthems and autobiographical rhymes about his trajectory from Brooklyn, N.Y.-based aspiring rapper and “American Gangster” to international megastar and CEO. Jay-Z the untouchable. The aspirational. The undisputed (if repeatedly retired) king of contemporary hip-hop. The ego. (He has a big one, remember?)
But on 4:44, dropped at the stroke of midnight on Tidal, he opens by bidding farewell to both the image and ego that cemented him in the urban American imagination. “Bye, Jay-Z,” he says, paving the way for a conversation he hopes to have “in a place of vulnerability and honesty.”
That vulnerability reaches its apex in the title track, a contrite tribute to his wife, punctuated by Hannah Williams’ wailing refrain, “I’m never gonna treat you like I should … ” More than a song, it hits the body like a four-minute-long pang of regret; a rare revelation from the man who cavalierly quipped, “I’m a pimp by blood, not relation; y’all be chasin’, I replace ’em … ” Instead, a more muted and matured megastar now rhymes:
I wasn’t ready, so I apologize
I’ve seen the innocence leave your eyes
I still mourn this death, I apologize for all the stillborns
’Cause I wasn’t present, your body wouldn’t accept it
I apologize to all the women whom I
Toyed with your emotions, because I was emotionless.
It’s a passage that personally cut me to the core, along with many women (and perhaps a few men) I know. It’s the apology so many of us feel we deserved but have never received. It speaks to a grown man’s accountability—and 4:44 is undeniably a grown man’s album. It is complete, self-aware and clear in its intentions.
Whether it is a response to Lemonade is perhaps irrelevant. But listening, I couldn’t help wondering if it would create the same ripple effect of affirmation and empathy for black men as its counterpart, which was hailed as a testament to both the glory and painfully requisite resilience of black women. As Candice Benbow, creator of last year’s viral Lemonade Syllabus (she’s hoping brothers will create one for 4:44), wrote about these companion pieces:
Loving him almost killed her. As it has almost killed so many of us. Sometimes, it does kill us. The cost of loving like we do. Loving men who ain’t ready or willing to be loved like that. Miscarriages. Blank stares. Soulless bodies. Robbed of time and hope. Broken. The cost is too high. It’s just too much.
With 4:44, Jay-Z attempts to own some of this cost, too: the cost of broken trust, lost faith and shame from becoming so lost in his legend that he almost “let the baddest girl in the world get away.” They are profound confessions from a powerful man; ones that will likely ultimately earn him far more than he’s lost (materially, at least), just as his wife both earned millions and an even higher level of artistic acclaim with her own confessional. And that’s OK. In fact, it’s what artists (see: Adele, Taylor Swift, Kanye, et al.) do: They spin pain into pop-culture gold—or, in this case, platinum.
But what of us mere mortals? In this case, women too brokenhearted to even feel like the baddest girl on the block anymore—let alone the world—and the men we so desperately love(d)? Will black men take from 4:44 the permission to love and be loved completely? Will their pain—as well as our own—be validated by the testimonials of one of the biggest hustlers to ever play the game? Will they accept from Jay the lessons he claims to have gleaned from the mistakes of Eric Benét and Michael Corleone? Will 4:44 be for black men the healing tonic that Lemonade offered so many women? Or will it end up another drop in the bucket of the “Stars: They’re Just Like Us!” culture we love to identify with?
“See! We’re messy and dysfunctional AF, too!”
Because as cathartic as 4:44 might be—and it is, from start to finish—in the end, it still speaks to a love, commitment and contrition that many of us will never experience. Even if we have the love, most of us will never have the therapy, the money or even the time to pause and self-reflect as Jay alludes to. Too many men (and women) will never make the apology. And despite his highly listenable cautionary tale, too many will inevitably cut off their noses to spite their faces—ironically, because they’re always reaching for something newer, better and badder than even their soul mates.
The pain revealed by both of these albums is sometimes excruciatingly relatable. And like his bars on black wealth, there is much wisdom to be gained from Jay’s revelations about black love. But for many of us, this kind of reckoning and reconciliation remains as aspirational as any other celebrity trope or Hollywood romance. Because for all the anger, anguish and negotiation of their dueling confessionals, theirs is ultimately a love still firmly on top. And while that’s a beautiful testament to (billionaire, heterosexual) black love, until we collectively do the work, most of us will end up forced to forgive ourselves for awaiting an apology we’ll never receive—and shouldn’t have to be the “baddest” to deserve. And as Benbow notes, that’s a song far more bitter than sweet:
Because, for as amazing an album it is, when some of us really sit with it, we are haunted by the reality that we will never see this Jay. We got and fell in love with Jigga, stayed around while he was Hov, hoping and praying things would change. But they didn’t. And then he left us to go and be better for someone else.