Rosalyn D'mello: Apologies are a good start
Jay Z's public apology in 4.44 goes a long way in addressing the void created by the 'missing apology' from patriarchal forces
To say that I have been tripping on Jay Z's 4.44 would be a gross misstatement of facts. I find myself living inside the track; inhabiting the spaces between samples, between nuance, and everything it cumulatively evokes. I know I'm late to the party. But I had to arrive at this song.
It took me too long, maybe. And now that I've had my run-in with it, I seem to be carrying it with me, not just in my head, but in my pulse, my blood-beat. Hannah Williams' voice in the introductory sample track, "Late Nights and Heartbreaks" sets me off on the tailwind of a feeling. When she is done crooning, "Why do I keep on running away?" you hear the staccato-like break with the onset of the next sample; a few bars from Tyler, the Creator's ZIPLOC. And each time I think it can't get any better, when Jay Z begins to rap, I fall into pieces a little bit.
I've been trying to understand why. I've been making valiant efforts to articulate to artist friends my fascination with the lyrics of this song. Eerily, it seems to be women who get it, like my 16-year-old niece, for instance, and my girlfriends. I've narrowed it down to one thing. The song is an apology; a public one, at that.
There must be so many reasons for its origin. The one we know for sure is that his wife, Beyonce, made this apology incumbent through her album, Lemonade, which released before Jay Z's 4.44. Both are masterpieces, in my opinion, and sometimes I feel like I could write a whole thesis just on these two works of art. Beyonce infused every track on Lemonade with a fierce feminine energy. She doesn't descend into pathos; even when she makes her listener conscious of the fact that she's been cheated on by her husband. She comes from a position of strength, the kind that embraces fragility and vulnerability. She makes her pain and heartbreak so accessible and immediate, you feel it because it is universal. It becomes a cathartic exegesis. There are intonations of scripture, of poetry (Warson Shire in particular in Hold Up), the visual imagery is effusive and interior; revealing to us an image of a jilted woman who is struggling not to internalise the fact of her cuckoldry.
The very public hanging of Jay Z's dirty laundry I found liberating. She takes him to task. But somehow, in an era where marriages can fall apart for lesser reasons, she also makes evident her continuing love and desire for him; and an eagerness to forgive. In fact, the whole album seems like she is trying to summon the grace to forgive.
Jay Z uses the word 'apologise' about seven times in the titular track of 4.44. And I am surprised that it doesn't lose currency or efficacy. Each time feels anything but disingenuous. I think I love the song because it is such unfamiliar territory; listening to a man conduct a public apology; and not in a spineless way like so many men have in the last year, from Kevin Spacey to Louis CK. Jay Z incriminates himself. His apology could even be said to have legal ramifications. I wish I had other primary reasons; it feels lame to celebrate a man for mustering the grace and courage to accept he was wrong and behaved badly. But, because I am still an optimist, I have this secret hope that this apology could be the start of a larger movement of apologising. In my feminist circles, we keep speaking about 'the missing apology', from patriarchal forces, for so many centuries of shameless oppression.
Jay Z's 4.44 goes a long way in addressing that void. But more importantly, his apology begins with an epiphany; "Took for my child to be born, see through a woman's eyes." Where so much hip-hop and rap has revelled in its projection of versions of toxic masculinity; this one feels like a reversal; a pause; an acceptance of Jay Z's culpability and complicity in the proliferation of misogyny; a repentance for past sins of womanizing (I apologise to all the women whom I toyed with your emotions/ Cause I was emotionless); and for general male entitlement (I said: "Don't embarrass me," instead of "Be mine"/That was my proposal for us to go steady/That was your 21st birthday).
There's nothing new about male irrepressibility. It isn't revolutionary, like its female equivalent because of how men, even from marginalised spaces, have always enjoyed more privilege than women. Jay Z's 4.44 reminded me of a fabulous take-down by a woman, a home-baker, Geraldine DeRuiter of chef Mario Batali's tone-deaf apology to women who accused him of sexually predatory behaviour.
The apology, which was embedded in his newsletter, ended with a recipe for cinnamon rolls, which DeRuiter decided to make out of spite, and fails, spectacularly, despite her baking skills. She ends her rant with these lines: "We try to follow a half-written recipe and think it's our fault when it doesn't work. We need to undo an entire humanity's history worth of hate against women. Apologies are a good start. Just skip the goddamn recipe."
Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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