For his new album 4:44, Jay Z partnered with a team of extraordinary filmmakers to create some of the best music videos we’ve seen all year.
Despite a large section of the rap community taking a negative stance towards the work, with 50 Cent stating “Shit was like golf course music” and many other performers taking offense at Jay Z’s criticism of the money phone pose, 4:44 hit platinum in less than a week and critics have almost unanimously praised the album as one of the best he’s produced in his more than 20-year career.
In his review for Pitchfork, Sheldon Pearce wrote, “It only takes Jay Z 36 minutes to create the historical artifact he’s wanted to make for years, a tell-all document to be hung in the halls of rap about infidelity and outgrowing friends, the way family shapes us and the way we carry those burdens into parenthood, and about evolving into more complete versions of ourselves.”
Revolving around the notions of betrayal and legacy, the whole album is conceptually very tight, with recurrent themes and musical threads that flow and evolve organically throughout the 10 main tracks. In contrast, Jay Z went for very different styles for each one of the videos that accompany the album. Rather than music videos, each track has been released with a distinct short film.
For the track “Bam”, Jay Z chose to work with director Rohan Blair-Mangat, renowned for his spots for Nike, Vice and Adidas. The short is a cleanly shot documentary following the iconic rapper to the island of Jamaica to collaborate with Damian Marley on the song.
That naturalistic feel is flipped 180 degrees with the highly posed and artificial set up for Moonlight – an all black cast shot by shot recreation of the uber popular sitcom Friends. Directed by Alan Yang, producer and director of sitcoms Parks And Recreation and Master Of None, this short film is an uncomfortable exploration of identity, popular culture and artistic authorship.
Certainly the most controversial video to come from 4:44 so far is “The Story of OJ” an animated short made by multi-awarded vfx house The Mill and directed by Mark Romanek, known for his feature film Never Let Me Go and his high profile music videos for Michael Jackson and Nine Inch Nails.
The animation is a grim, powerful and sarcastic view of race through the 20th century, with art style based on the early 1900s children’s book The Story Of Little Black Sambo and reminiscent of those Cab Calloway cartoons done by Max Fleischer Studios in the 1930s.
Like him or not, Jay Z is a guy that stirs conversation every time he releases new material. His ability to shift popular culture and affect the current trends of the industry still after 13 studio albums says a lot about his legacy as one of the most influential artists of all time.