We take the new releases in music for the week and pit them one-on-one in PressureLife’s Album WAR!
This week, hip-hop highfathers do battle in competing surprise releases as Jay-Z’s 4:44 takes on Public Enemy’s Nothing is Quick in the Desert (Except Death)
4:44 is purposefully understated and contrite. While not stripped down and never lacking, this is a workingman’s Jay-Z. Exclusivity is the prevailing theme. Both in the album’s subject matter and its Tidal-only release. 4:44 has had little in the way of previews, unlike other Top 40 juggernauts who will diffuse months of singles to wear consumers down in time for the actual product. 4:44 has the refreshing allure of mystery.
One Jay-Z puts to bed immediately.
Jay-Z wants you to know he’s sorry, like, really sorry. 4:44 is an overt act of contrition. An artist who has gained subtle infamy for hidden messages went out of his way to set the score right out of the gate and stick with it through to the last bar.
4:44 opens with a wail of sirens and the desperate plea to “Kill Jay-Z”. The opening tracks serves as a humble annihilation of the ego. Jay-Z yearns to learn from his mistakes, to accept the demands for maturity and growth. Worn on his sleeve, “You gotta do better for Blue”. Looking back on lifetime of close calls, “….let the baddest girl the world get away” Jay-Z tears himself down to build upon his mistakes, “You can’t heal what you never reveal.”
4:44 is not only the title track but the thesis of his apology to Beyonce; literally opening with “I apologize…” Being so direct, one can’t help but consider that Jay-Z doth protest too much after yet another similarly-themed song, “Family Feud”. Especially with lyrics like, Nobody wins when the family feuds, I’m trying to fix shit.” While “Kill Jay-Z” and “Family Feud” are as reductive as they are redundant on the topic, “4:44” goes the extra mile with a soulful Motown backing vocals that work like a swirling runway for Jay-Z to set the record straight with the Queen Bae.
With a third of the album being overt attempts to score points with his wife, and the rest subvert attempts, 4:44 is objectively self-absorbed at times. Ironically, since so much of the content laments that very vice. The apology songs are far from bad, in fact they’re quite good. They do, however, become indulgent. By the time Jay-Z chides, “Let me alone, Becky”, it’s clear he’s forgotten the audience was in the room still.
Nothing suffers more for this indulgence than Jay-Z’s own genius. “Smile” beautifully chronicles his mother’s struggles in both raising a child and finding peace as a lesbian. It is almost a shame that a song this accomplished is hidden on a Tidal-exclusive only album and that it will be overshadowed by the apology songs. “Smile” holds the promise of hope found in tolerance and compassion, in seeing the world from other people’s vantages and just wanting them to be happy.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with “Moonlight” or “Marcy Me” either. The latter offers a surprisingly vulnerable side of Jay-Z usually offset with an aloof swagger that is intentionally void throughout 4:44, but lack the presence of the apology songs or the poignancy of Smile. As a result, they easily slip between the cracks on a play-through. Damien Marley and Frank Ocean stop by to lay down some hooks on “Bam” and “Caught their Eyes”, respectively. Both are sums of their parts and little else. While Marley’s contribution is serviceable at best, Ocean’s serves as a standout outlier. “Caught their Eyes” is markedly raw, purposefully lacking the tempered patience elsewhere on 4:44 while quietly displays Jay-Z’s pop sensibility in songcrafting.
4:44 closes with the reflective “Legacy”. Jay-Z looks back to his origins and the path that’s led to where he stands, questioning if it’s not all just a “red queen’s race, running just to stay in place”. The album closes quietly with the question left unanswered as it is in Jay-Z’s personal life, much like many of our own lives. The fusion of the two are evident in 4:44’s somber sensibility which resonates with listeners for its defenseless honesty throughout.
Standout Track: “The Story of O.J.” Despite the accolades or the titles, regardless of the sub-genres or dividing demographics, Jay-Z struggles with what it means to be a black man in America over sedated coffee shop trip-hop beats.
The comedic pause after O.J.’s response, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.”
Rating: 4 out of 5
Nothing is Quick in the Desert (Except Death)
Nothing Is Quick In The Desert (Except Death) is a Mad Max hard edged return to form for rap’s forefathers. Also billed as a surprise release, the band announced that it is hosting the album for free on BandCamp the same day Jay-Z released 4:44 behind the pay-exclusive Tidal service.
The opening title track drops the listener in, riding shotgun in an electric dystopia set against post-apocalyptic cover art reminiscent of Megadeth and Iron Maiden. This post-9/11 Spaghetti Western bleeds into the expertly weighted “sPEak”. Public Enemy balances the battle cry to speak out against injustice with a section of perfectly detuned horns that reaches for a modernity sometimes eluding the veteran unit.
For the most part, their longevity works with them, offering a valued sagacity to their words. When they work against the current of time, the results are less compelling. Such as in “Yesterday Man” , a Flava Flav showcase that starts off in earnest with a man out of time in the modern world. Albeit, not a staggeringly profound sentiment in music. And to that end, the track soon devolves to the band literally listing off things that they don’t like followed with a chorus of “wack!”
The album ends in similar fashion, unfortunately. Chuck D laments the passage of time and the changes in its wake on “Rest in Beats I and II”. Part I serves as respectable, if not uninspired, eulogy to the late greats in rap and hip-hop before its rear-view gazing catches its own refection. Part II’s complaints about YouTube, Vimeo, and memes, just leaves a bad taste with which to close an otherwise vital album.
No one can accuse Public Enemy of mailing Nothing is Quick in the Desert (Except Death) in. Present is the social commentary you’d expect from Chuck D, but there is an immediacy, a real urgency. The lyrics to “Exit Your Mind” are the most stirring and political of the album but are almost hidden in this track which features as little more than a cutting floor stowaway.
“Beat Them All” and its Sgt. Pepper-style reprise “If you can’t Join em Beat Em” play with the unsettling double entendre that the refrain “If you can’t join ‘em, you know you gotta beat ‘em” encourages when chanted by a stadium of rabid supporters. No wonder “Beat Them All” opens with the lines “Hey dude, why you building a wall?”
“Smash the Crowd” starts off much like any other Public Enemy song, dangerously close to becoming an also-ran. Then Ice T arrives. He doesn’t stay for long but it’s worth it. Like a meteor streaking across the sky, it’s a flash of brilliance but it serves reminder how good this man is whenever he feels like showing up, evidenced with his delivery of “I’m not happy with the soft hippie cotton candy, bang the crowd hard or get the fuck out my yard”
It becomes more apparent when the band is searching for material. “So Be It” raps itself in circles with that same disposable social platitudes that they’ve evaded up until this point in the album and “Terrorwrist” is well-meaning but dated. The Cyprus Hill influenced “SOC MED Digital Heroin” offers a great showcase for classic Chuck D lyricism but isn’t imaginative enough to garner a repeat listen.
“Toxic” has some really uncompromising material- “Every treaty signed their fuckery broke it. No wonder only a few of us thrive as their tokens” and a playful call and response between Chuck D and Flava Flav that underscores the ease in which these lifelong peers can work off of one another.
Public Enemy has always been a band whose success depends on their necessity, one whose value was weighed against the import of their message. Returning focused and with a message, Public Enemy is a powerful force; one whose value is as crucial now as it has ever been.
Standout Track: “Sells Like Teens Hear It” – Great wordplay. Classic Flava Flav here, and truer to form than the stilted call-and-response “Yesterday Man”. Here, Flava Flav works the silver tongue style reminiscent of his classic “911 is a Joke”. What could have been buried under nondescript backing track is allowed to flourish with kooky/dreamy asides that compliment his impish charm rather than masking it.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Winner of the Week: Public Enemy – Nothing is Quick in the Desert (Except Death)
This is the closest Album WAR! showdown to date with both competitors bringing their A-game this week. Jay-Z may be dominating the music headlines with the much ballyhooed subject matter of 4:44, but Public Enemy must not have heard the news because Nothing is Quick in the Desert (Except Death) is one of their accomplished and thoroughly enjoyable albums since Fear of a Black Planet.
Loaded with sampling, unexpected cameos, and turntable scratch magic, never once does the band flirt with sleepwalking through a retread of riffs and themes. They lean into social issues as one would expect but put in the time to present them in vital and aggressive tracks that set the records straight- Chuck D, Flava Flav, and Terminator X are the godfathers of rap for a reason.