Jay-Z begins 4:44, the album he released last week, with an emotional purge. “Cry Jay-Z, we know the pain is real / But you can't heal what you never reveal,” he raps on opener “Kill Jay-Z.” He spends much of the record retracing his steps in an attempt to understand his own mistakes, and to atone for them. “Said, ‘Don't embarrass me,’ instead of ‘Be mine’ / That was my proposal for us to go steady,” he recounts on the album’s title track. It is the 47-year-old rapper’s infidelity, which came to light on Beyoncé’s album Lemonade, that informs much of his introspection. Both artists are meticulously deliberate in their self-presentation (4:44 was released with a perfect marketing campaign and Lemonade was nominated for both Grammy and Emmy awards), and Jay’s album serves as an update to the narrative of Lemonade. The once emotionally unavailable man reckons with himself and with the hurt he caused.
But it’s how Jay approaches that reckoning that seems most significant. “Smile,” a track where Jay reveals that his mother is a lesbian and carried the secret for decades, includes a reference to his mental health. “My therapist said I relapsed,” Jay quips, before injecting a brag. “I said, ‘Perhaps I Freudian slipped in European whips.’" The line drew praise on Twitter for seeming to help promote the idea of seeking therapy, especially among African Americans, for whom a stigma around mental health remains pernicious. It follows other discussions of mental health among hip-hop artists of late. Kanye West, in his very specific way, has been at the center of many conversations about depression; he openly and casually references his prescription to the antidepressant Lexapro on “FML” from last year’s The Life of Pablo. In 2014, following the release of his single “i,” Kendrick Lamar told 93.7 The Beat that “[Depression] is something I faced in my life not only [when writing the song], but even now.”
Of course, when you are rich, there are fewer barriers to mental health services. But according to a study by the American Psychological Association, African Americans are less likely than whites to seek mental health services despite, as data from U.S. HHS Office of Minority Health suggests, being 20 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress. Open conversations about mental health from figures like Jay-Z, who over the course of 4:44 outlines other suggestions for the betterment of an amorphous black community, is a step in the right direction when it comes to helping change attitudes and confront issues of access when it comes to mental health for black people in America.
The album’s final song, “Legacy,” finds Jay contemplating what he wants to leave behind for his children. He ticks off the list of things he’ll leave behind and espouses the importance of generational wealth, rapping, “My parents ain't have shit, so that shift started with me.” But over the course of his long career, Jay has built more than a family. He’s created a new vision for what black people believe they can do. It’s what makes his vulnerability on 4:44 so remarkable. Jay spends much of the record copping to his own shortcomings, admitting that despite his status as a bona fide mogul, he has fucked up and has had the privilege to bounce back from his mistakes. “Like the men before me, I cut off my nose to spite my face,” he raps on the song “4:44.” If his catalog up to now, fueled by braggadocio and ambition, served as an inspiration for a generation of black entrepreneurs, his latest is more universal. With 4:44, Jay has shared with his fans an idea: It’s okay to ask for help.