Current myths about relationships, fatherhood, and homophobia often depict Black men as flat, stoic, and incapable of compassion, even though a significant amount of Black men, including Will Smith, Barack Obama, and Mahershala Ali, are present, appear to be thriving in their communities, and have healthy relationships with their spouses and children. Many Black men have also listened to Jay Z through 13 studio albums, a record label, a clothing line, a cognac brand, legendary verses, and immense fame. They refer to him as Hov, an exalted figure who’s rich in experience and wealth. When he speaks, they listen. On 4:44, Hov utilizes that influence to ask the question: What does it mean for Black men to practice vulnerability?
Instead of rapping about the allure or trappings of hip hop fame, 4:44 offers a sonic foray into Jay Z’s innermost thoughts about Black wealth, self-awareness, and his marriage. On the album, he reintroduces himself as a transparent and intentional rapper who still embodies the hallmarks of Black masculinity: hard, street smart, and dominant. He’s a mastered the game of life, or more specifically, the game of capitalism. In this competition, men test their wills to earn more dollars than the next man, but for Black men, this is a game of survival. In order to escape the streets and sit in boardrooms, Black men, like Jay Z, harden themselves and learn to outthink and manipulate their competitors.
The instinct of self-preservation creates a “me vs. the world” mentality that becomes useful. Jay Z pivots this message to the concept of Black wealth and collective economics in “The Story of OJ.” The leading single from 4:44 has a politically charged visual that utilizes racist cartoons from Disney and Warner Bros. to investigate the intersection of race, class, and especially gender. “Light n*gga, dark n*gga, faux n*gga, real n*gga/ Rich n*gga, poor n*gga, house n*gga, field n*gga/ Still n*gga, still n*gga.” The hook suggests that regardless of the approach that Blacks take to capitalism, it doesn’t negate their race.
While his growth and vulnerability is powerful for other Black men to witness, does it have to occur at the expense of those who love them? There is a stillness between Black men, a tension filled with topics avoided and words unspoken. When hanging up the phone with my best friend of 15 years, I still hesitate to say “I love you,” like I end other conversations. It took me four of those years to come out to him as gay, and another four years to come out to my college homies. As a Black gay man, I feel anxiety when addressing other Black men. I fear that my love for them, fraternal or romantic, will be seen as soft, and thus anything I say or write in service of my brothers—specifically the heterosexual ones—may fall on oblivious ears and hardened hearts. But the encompassing love I have for Black men wants for them to lead healthy lives and build healthier relationships.
Often, when Black men dare to express their innermost feelings, they are forced to confront the dangerous paradigm of hypermasculinity. For them, being perceived as soft or feminine is a gamble. Although the wager may yield tremendous personal growth, Black men navigate internal conflict in attempts to preserve social expectations, outward perception, and personal safety. Jay Z has embodied this mentality on some of his most memorable records, including “Big Pimpin” and “Song Cry.” He’s selectively shared his emotions while he attempts to conquer or collect as many women possible to assert dominance. The album’s title track, “4:44,” is a litany of apologies for that behavior. “I apologize/ I often womanize/ Took for my child to be born/To see through a woman’s eyes,” he raps over a soulful sample of Hannah Williams and the Affirmations’ “Late Nights and Heart Breaks.” “Took for these natural twins/ To believe in miracles/ Took me too long for this song/ I don’t deserve you.”
At the age of 47, Shawn Carter has awakened, pivoting from the Jay we knew on “Big Pimpin.’” He’s wiser, more mature, and knows his indiscretions have impacted his wife and brought shame to their family.
As I listened to the album, I vividly remembered the men I have loved and how we fell out of love. I vividly remembered the men who raised me, felt their impressions in my bones. I reflected on the Black boys I’ve taught and mentored over the years. All of these Black men have experienced similar journeys inward to understand themselves, whether through introspection, infidelity, or both. Their faces and experiences evoke intense emotion for me. The varying components of these experiences depend on the interchanging variables of love, dialogue—and sadly, isolation. I have experienced this isolation a few times on the journey to finding and understanding myself as a Black male. First, as a young boy with an estranged father, and then, much later, attempting to validate myself by performing the dominant, heteronormative standard in my teenage years.
I would boast about having any girl I could. I would draw all of the attention on myself from girls, and eventually other boys, because I wanted to be affirmed. In reality, I was terrified that no one knew the real me, or saw me fully. I experienced this isolation one final time when struggling to come out as gay. It wasn’t enough to just say it, I wanted to be open and proud. I wanted to maintain my dignity, my family, and my friends. I didn’t want to change the softness in my voice or suppress parts of myself labeled as deviant or damaging to my people. When Black men express themselves in a way that shatters the paradigm of Black masculinity, it often leads to tangible penalties against Black bodies, psyches, and spirits.
My story is unique, but similar to other Black queer men. However, there are Black men who experience isolation in a wildly different manner, many simply struggling to articulate their thoughts or emotions.
Often Black men isolate themselves as protection, as a refuge to bury feelings, to sublimate their emotions in sacrifice of stereotypes that limit authentic connection with others. Black communities need more vulnerability and openness between Black men and their families. On “Family Feud,” Jay uses the title as an multifaceted analogy of his wife and children, the current climate of hip hop, and the Black community. “Nobody wins when the family feuds/ We all screwed ‘cause we never had the tools/ I’m trying to fix you/ I’m trying to get these n*ggas with no stripes to be official.” Jay utilizes his influence to spread purpose and wisdom. More importantly, he draws connection between wealth and the importance of familial bonds.
It’s not enough to possess material wealth because true abundance comes from a strong foundation at home. Typically, Black men see themselves in direct competition to white men, often overlooking the impact that has on other Black people, specifically Black women and Black queer people. In “Smile,” Jay Z’s mother, Gloria, recites a poem about living in the closet, assumedly in service of her son’s public image: “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/ Smile.” Jay Z draws a direct lineage from his mother’s growth and maturation to his own, embracing and championing her decision to be out and free.
“Smile” suggests that love and liberation isn’t limited to Black men. Black queer people and Black women also need affirmation from their communities.
4:44 initiates a larger conversation among Black men. We can follow his footsteps, or rather learn and prevent similar missteps by practicing transparency and vulnerability in all of our romantic and platonic relationships. Perhaps that is the hope in 4:44. Naturally, Jay Z evolves his brand while maturing as a father and husband, but his vulnerability challenges preconceived notions of Black masculinity and blurs the boundaries between the traditional and progressive views in the Black community. But, the next question is: Are Black men listening?