After four weeks of teasing us with no fewer than five cryptic video clips, Jay-Z finally dropped his new album, “4:44,” precisely three minutes before midnight last night. Headlines poured in shortly thereafter citing a lyric in the album’s title track as unequivocal confirmation of Jay-Z’s infidelities:
“And if my children knew / I don’t even know what I would do / If they ain’t look at me the same / I would probably die with all the shame,” Jay-Z raps in song’s closing verse. “‘You did what with who?’ / What good is a ménage à trois when you have a soulmate? / ‘You risked that for Blue?'”
In another moment of candidness, he sings, “I apologize for all the stillborns / Cause I wasn’t present, your body wouldn’t accept it.” And then: “I never wanted another woman to know / Something about me that you didn’t know/I promised, I cried, I couldn’t hold / I suck at love, I think I need a do-over / I will be emotionally available if I invited you over / I stew over what if you over my shit?”
Not only is Jay-Z seemingly admitting to his affair (or affairs), but he is also apologizing — berating himself, even — for how his actions impacted his and Beyoncé’s relationship, and their efforts to start a family together.
But this isn’t just an apology — it’s a very, very, very public one. Much like Beyoncé’s “LEMONADE,” “4:44” shines a light on some of the deepest intimacies of Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s marriage — cheating, forgiveness, emotional unavailability and stillborn children — to the entire world. This openness is radical enough in its own right for any major celebrity, but the Carters’ extreme privacy adds another layer of significance.
Given that they control their narrative, as a couple and as individuals, down to the punctuation, it would be logical to conclude that these musical exposés are a very intentional part of that narrative. If art trumps privacy and privacy is a mechanism for protecting themselves, does art trump self-preservation? Or is creating the best work they can, as an honest product of their experiences, the greatest act of self-preservation that exists in the sense that not doing so would be living a lie?
Jenna Wortham made a pertinent observation during a round table discussion about “LEMONADE” in The New York Times: “There’s also something incredibly powerful about telling your own story in 2016. That is not something that most celebrities get to do. It’s either going to be in Us Weekly, it’s going to be in the Shade Room, it’s in the comments. And this is her saying, I’m telling my story, this is my narrative, and that’s the ultimate act of agency.”
Beyoncé and Jay-Z are masterful in their ownership of their voice and their story. They are effectively championing vulnerability, and cementing a place for personal storytelling to do what it does best: remind us that we’re all human beings, and we’re not alone.