JAY-Z’s 4:44 is undoubtedly one of his most personal album to date. While the veteran rapper’s candid rhymes about his marriage, infidelity, black capitalism and estranged friendships are the talk on social media, what is also equally impressive is the production on the album.
Veteran studio maverick No I.D. has proven himself to be one of the best producers in hip-hop. In his 25-year career, the Chicago native has produced tracks for DMX, Rihanna, Big Sean, Jhene Aiko, Vince Staples, J. Cole, Melanie Fiona and fellow Chi-city natives Common and Kanye West.
On Hov’s 4:44, No I.D. sampled familiar soul and hip-hop songs from such artists as Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, the Fugees, Kool & the Gang and others and used them to steer JAY-Z’s personal narratives. The samples are carefully placed to add purpose to JAY-Z’s stream-of-consciousness rhymes.
According to No I.D., the production motivated JAY-Z to be vulnerable with his lyrics. “I don’t want to take credit for what he wanted to do in the first place,” he explained to Rolling Stone. “I helped push him by saying, ‘Hey, this is what you said, this is what we know. I think people need to hear what they don’t know.’ Meaning: You wanted a Picasso, but why? You’re with Beyoncé, but what is that really like? What’s the pressure? What’s the responsibility? What’s the ups and downs? I wanted him to not be over people’s heads.”
The Boombox has put together a list of the samples used on JAY-Z’s 4:44. Take a listen below.
One of the most talked about tracks on JAY-Z’s 4:44 is the “Story of O.J.” The song features Hov talking about black capitalism and ownership as he drops a “million dollars worth of game for $9.99.” No I.D. sampled Nina Simone’s 1966 somber ode “Four Women,” which tells the story of four different African-American female archetypes.
There are a couple of Nina Simone samples on 4:44 (“Baltimore” appears below) -- both were handpicked by Hov, himself. “That's the score to his life. That's the core reason for using them,” No I.D. tells Rolling Stone. "There's a million things to sample that could sound good. But that's what he wanted. It freed me up to just be creative and be told, ‘this is what I want.’ It's challenging as well.”
"Kool's Back Again"Kool & the Gang
Kool & the Gang is famous for their indelible party track “Celebration,” but back in the 1970’s their were known as an instrumental funk band. The New Jersey group has been sampled thousands of times in hip-hop. On 4:44's "Story of O.J.," No I.D. sampled the drum kicks on Kool & the Gang's “Kool’s Back Again.”
"Love's In Need of Love Today"Stevie Wonder
You can't go wrong with sampling a Stevie Wonder track. The soul legend’s “Love’s In Need of Love Today” is a familiar sample by producers’ standards. The soulful "woo-woos" on Wonder’s ballad has been flipped by several producers including Jake One (50 Cent's "Ryder Music") and Mell & CStylez (Rapper Big Pooh's "Let It Be"), just to name a few.
On “Smile,” JAY-Z opens up about his mother’s sexuality. "Mama had four kids, but she's a lesbian / Had to pretend so long that she’s a thespian," he raps on the track. No I.D. anchors the song with the sample, using the “woo-woos” and Wonder’s vocals, “Good morning or evening friends.” Love is certainly in need of love today.
Another standout track on 4:44 is the bouncy “Caught in Your Eyes.” On the song, JAY-Z takes aim at his rivals both in life and in business. In the second verse, he has some choice words for Prince’s former attorney L. Londell McMillan. The sampling of Nina Simone’s 1978 reggae-inflicted song “Baltimore” is very intricate as No I.D. chops up her vocals to say “their eyes” as well as used the eerie violins. Music Trivia: “Baltimore” is actually a Simone cover of Randy Newman’s 1977 track of the same same. Rumor has it that Simone didn’t care much for the song.
"Late Nights & Heartbreak"Hannah Williams and The Affirmations
The title track on JAY-Z’s 13th studio album is deeply personal as it deals with his marital indiscretions to his wife Beyoncé. No I.D. used Hannah Williams and The Affirmations’ 2016 ballad, “Late Nights & Heartbreaks,” which also deals with infidelity, to help navigate Hov's revealing song. Williams delivers the pain with her soulful, wailing vocals, while JAY is apologetic in his rhymes. It’s a match made in musical heaven.
"That whole piece of music was created with me knowing: I'm going to make you say it on this song, and this song will be the only song you need to say it on so it wouldn't turn into a full Lemonade response album," said No I.D. "I boxed all of those parts in and said, 'Here, what are you going do with this?' It's literally the way a producer and an artist should work – nudging and pushing, creating boundaries and allowing him to be the center."
"Ha Ya (Eternal Life)"The Clark Sisters
On “Family Feud,” JAY-Z continues his talk of black capitalism and ownership as it relates to rappers gaining wealth in the business world. “What’s better than one billionaire? / Two / Especially when they from same hue as you,” he raps. No I.D. chopped up the Clark Sisters vocals from their 1980 gospel song, “Ha Ya (Eternal Life).” Beyonce sings the “Ha Ya” part, while the rest of the sample pushes the empowering song along.
JAY-Z delivers braggadocios rhymes on the dancehall-influenced “Bam” featuring Damian Marley. Predictably, the horns were sampled from Sister Nancy’s classic 1982 song “Bam Bam,” which inspired the track. The Brooklyn rhymer gets rude boy on the song, rapping, “F--- all of this pretty Carter s---, Hov!”
There are a few rap samples on 4:44 as well. On “Moonlight,” which is JAY-Z’s critique on hip-hop culture, the Fugees’ 1995 song Fu-Gee-La (“Ooh La-La-La”) is used to emphasize Hov’s line, “We stuck in La La Land / Even when we win, we gonna lose.” Throughout the song, JAY-Z criticizes rappers for not being original and allowing big corporations to profit off of them. “Y'all n----s still signin' deals? Still? / After all they done stole, for real? / After what they done to our Lauryn Hill? / And y'all n----s is 'posed to be trill?” he asks.
"Unbelievable"The Notorious B.I.G.
The second rap sample isn’t a sample per say. At the beginning of “Marcy Me,” JAY-Z pays home to the late and great Notorious B.I.G. by reciting his opening lines from “Unbelievable.” “Live from Bedford-Stuyvesant / The livest one / Representing BK to the fullest / Bastards duckin' when Hov be buckin' / Chickenheads be cluckin’,” he raps. However, the piano groove featured on the track is a sample of Portugal rock band Quarteto 1111’s tune, “Todo O Mundo E Ninguém.” No I.D. really dig in the crates to find this obsure song.
"Someday We'll All Be Free"Donny Hathaway
No I.D. picked the perfect song to sample for 4:44’s final track, “Legacy.” Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We All Be Free” is from the singer’s final solo album, Extension of a Man. It’s an aching ballad that will give you goosebumps and make you cry at the same time.
No I.D. chopped up Hathaway’s “Someday We All Be Free” vocals and horns while JAY-Z raps about generational wealth. “Legacy, Legacy, Legacy, Legacy / Black excellence baby, you gon' let 'em see / Legacy, Legacy, Legacy, Legacy / Black excellence, baby, let 'em see,” he spits.