Prior to the release of the record it leaked that the entire project would be produced solely by No I.D. This was met with skepticism by most, including myself. Jay had never released a project produced by one person. The closest he'd come was Magna Carta, Holy Grail, on which Timbaland had a production credit (collaborative production credit on most tracks) on 12 of the 17 tracks. We know how that turned out. Even more foreboding, his collaborative LP with R. Kelly, Unfinished Business, relied almost exlusively on Tone from Poke and Tone. He had a hand in the production of every single song on that record, and all but 3 songs on their first collaboration The Best of Both Worlds.
So who exactly is No I.D., and how did he come to produce every single track on this record? You might know him as Kanye West's mentor, and he received a shout-out on a track that links all three artists, Kanye's "Big Brother". No I.D. was heavily involved in the Chicago scene, producing entire records for rapper Common, and that was how he linked up with Ye.
Well Jay and No I.D. go waaaay back to 1997, and Jay's second solo record In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. No I.D. told Complex he was around during the mixing of "Sunshine (Always Be My)", and reputable sources say he was also involved in the mastering process.
They collaborated on The Blueprint 2, but it wasn't until American Gangster he became a regular producer for Jay. He appeared on every Hov album since, working on The Blueprint 3, Watch The Throne and Magna Carta, Holy Grail. Photos of their work in Paris emerged in October 2014, post-Magna Carta, Holy Grail. The producer even claimed he made the legendary "Control" beat, the one that Kendrick Lamar spazzed on and wet up the entire industry, for Jay, but Jay passed, and it ended up in the hands of Big Sean, who collected Kendrick and Roc Nation artist Jay Electronica to perform over it. The conversation No I.D. had with Jay over that beat points directly to the sound and vibe they managed to cultivate on 4:44:
I told him I felt like he needed to do some straight, hardcore Hip Hop records. Sometimes we focus so much on selling records that we leave some artistic points uncovered…I had this beat. I had actually done it for Jay, right before I let Sean hear it. I said, ‘You should take this beat. I think it would be great for you to show up on one of these beats. Forget money. Forget everything.And so in 2017 the project is not executive produced by No I.D., he produces every single track. And it's doubtful Hov cares about projections or first week numbers on this track. "Forget money" is something he appears to have taken to heart. The seeds for this project have been sown many years prior.
EDIT: Since writing this article, No I.D. has given an incredibly in-depth and candid interview to Rolling Stone about his role in the album. Rather than repeat it here, I suggest you read it in its entirety, it's an incredible insight.
We have Memphis Bleek to thank for the last 17 years of crisply engineered Jay-Z songs and albums. As Guru told The Combat Jack Show:
Long story short I met Lorreal... The very next day she had me rocking with Def Jam... Somebody couldn't make it to a Memphis Bleek session, so I remember her calling Lenny [Santiago] and Lenny was like halfway fronting on me... Like Lenny was like hating on me a little but that's my dude now... As soon as I did the first session with Bleek it was over...Working with Bleek and Just Blaze led to meeting Jay-Z at Chung King Studios. Jay would ask Guru what he was doing for the next month, and Guru was locked into the Dynasty sessions. When Def Jam and Roc-A-Fella built Baseline Studios, they built it to the specifications of Just Blaze and Young Guru. A collaborative relationship was born, to the point where Guru has the keys to all of Jay's unreleased material on a single hard-drive.
First of all, Jay doesn't want any of his music on any other drives but my hard drive. If it leaks, it's on me. For Jay, it's safer to have me as his central base versus it being scattered all over the city.And Guru? He'll take the blame for Blueprint 2. During Jay's 2014 Tidal: B-Sides concert, Young Guru was on stage bumping his head and shouting the lyrics out like a true day-1 fan (even though he initially felt Notorious B.I.G. was the best rapper of all time, and didn't change his opinion until the early-2000s).
Guru has also spoken about the sole producer on this album, No I.D., and what he's learned from him:
When I work with No I.D.... he'll say to me 'I don't know if it's an EQ thing, I just more "presence"'. So I'll turn the 1073's preamp section way up... and bring my fader on the output side down to get me back to my original volume level.There could be no other recording engineer for this project. If it is indeed Jay's last, he's surrounded himself with family, shouting out Ty-Ty and Emory repeatedly on the record, recording with his mother, speaking on his nephews, his siblings, and his extended Roc Nation family. Young Guru is part of the fabled and courted inner-circle. As long as he keeps those "Ghetto Techno"-type tracks on lock...
Hov and Jimmy Douglass go way back, mostly because Jimmy Douglass and anyone of note in the music industry go way back. Think Aretha Franklin, Roxy Music, The Rolling Stones, Genesis, Snoop Dogg, Bjork, Justin Timberlake. It's through his work with Timbaland that he was connected with Jay-Z, and it was while the two were working out of Manhattan Center Studios that Douglass engineered 2 tracks on Jay's 1998 album Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life: "N***What, N*** Who" and "Paper Chase", before linking up again for the biggest track of Jay's career to that point, "Big Pimpin'". He also worked with Jay on "Encore" from 2003, separate from Timbaland.
Considered a legend among those in the know, it's not yet clear why Jay locked in with him for an entire project. Although having heard 4:44, these comments Jimmy made during a roundtable discussion in 2016 certainly reveal his fingerprints are all over this record:
[When asked if the Neve provides too much character] There's never enough "character" for "The Senator!"You can't deny this record is steeped in character. Jay's vocals at times feel so intimate it's as if he's in the room whispering them from the other side of a gold piano. There is a distinct spoken-word quality to a lot of the tracks, and without the correct mixing, those vocals would sound disembodied and out of place. On previous records Jay's vocals have been spit-shine clean, especially on his bigger budget records like Magna Carta, Blueprint 3, and The Black Album. On 4:44 I have yet to catch a double-track, at least not on any of the verses. This is the most character Jay has ever exhibited on an album.
Welcome to the Master of The Mastering Palace in Manhattan, a studio set up by Mr. Kutch that has mastered projects from Danny Brown, The Roots, Take That, Bruno Mars, Wale, Clipse, Pitbull, Ke$ha, Alicia Keys, Solange, Justin Timberlake.... You get the picture.
It was to Dave that Beyonce sent LEMONADE to be mixed at in 2016, although he was working out of Pacifique Recording Studios in North Hollywood at the time.
Now I could be mistaken, but Dave has never worked on a JAY-Z solo project before. He is listed as the Mastering Engineer for The-Dream's 2013 album IV Play, on which Jay was featured ("High Art"). He was also on The 20/20 Experience by Justin Timberlake, and Jay featured on "Suit & Tie" from that record. Likely, it's the strength of his work with wife Beyonce, and his work through Jungle City Studios; a recording space set up by Ann Mincieli, who is Alicia Keys' main engineer, and Alicia Keys is married to Swizz Beatz, a long-time JAY-Z collaborator.
Jay has been a regular at Jungle City Studios for decades. He recorded 3 tracks off Magna Carta, Holy Grail there, with Chris Godbey, Jordan Young and Demacio Castellon providing the engineer work. There is a picture of him working with Justin Timberlake, Nas, and Timbaland at the location during the recording of "BBC" which was also on that record. It's likely Jay connected with Dave through this studio.
The-Dream has been a pivotal member of Jay's (and Beyonce's) artistic team. He first signed to Def Jam as a solo artist in 2007, while Jay was still the President of the label. Since, Terius Nash has been pivotal in some of the biggest and best tracks in both Jay and Beyonce's catalogues. He co-wrote "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)", "No Church In The Wild", as well as "Holy Grail" and "Heaven" off Jay's 2013 album Magna Carta Holy Grail. Jay calls him "the secret weapon",
He likely picked this moniker up in 2011. During the recording of Watch The Throne, Jay apparently played Kanye "Holy Grail" and "Oceans" from Jay's 2013 solo LP Magna Carta, Holy Grail. Kanye wanted them for Watch The Throne, and what ensued was a 4 day fight between the close collaborators. It was Terius Nash who helped diffuse the situation, providing the bridge and the spark for the group of artists to be able to replace "Holy Grail" with an even better opener, "No Church In The Wild". The track won a Grammy.
JAY-Z and Damien Marley have a long history. It's been said that Jay tried to sign Damian Marley to his Roc La Familia arm of Roc-A-Fella Records back in 2005. That sub-label was for international artists, notably reggaeton, and had signed N.O.R.E. and Tru-Life, among others. It's alleged that it was the Marley family that stopped the deal from happening. Fast-forward to 2015, and Damian Marley became another co-owner of Tidal, Marley is also listed as a Roc Nation artist on their website, and in December 2016 Marley's manager Dan Dalton and his Dalton Entertainment Group entered into a partnership with Roc Nation.
I first met [Roc Nation CEO] Jay Brown and [Roc Nation founder] Jay-Z in 2004 when Damian was shopping for a record deal. Jay and Jay Z were at Def Jam, and it was an exciting time with Damian's 'Welcome to Jamrock' being a summer anthem. We really vibed with them and liked their take on the music business, and very much value their opinions.Jay caused a major stir in June 2017 when he was filmed in Kingston with Marley, and Marley confirmed that they'd been working together on new music.
We did some work in the studio recently and he wanted to come to Jamaica to get a tour of the place. He's been to Jamaica before, but never Kingston. So he wanted to come down to Kingston and asked us if we could have been there to show him around and give him a tour musically, in terms of our history in Kingston.This is the first time the two have collaborated musically.
Part of the reason Jay is listed as a co-producer on this record was explained by No I.D. to Rolling Stone:
At a point, I said, "Man, make me a playlist of songs you like. Where's your taste at right now?"Tidal has provided that playlist here. No I.D. mentions "scoring" the album in that interview, saying:
This album is about Shawn Carter, Jay-Z, opening up, and me scoring that. It only came about me doing the whole album because the scoring part of the story started getting so specific that no one else knew how to do the music that fit what was going on. That just happened by default. Half of this album we credited him as co-producer on.These are Jay's first-ever production credits. He is an accomplished executive producer, not only listed as one on most of his own records, but also albums by Cam'Ron, Jadakiss, Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West, and Fort Minor. On 4:44 he is listed as a co-producer on the title track and "Legacy", and as the producer (alongside No I.D.) on "Moonlight".
"Additional vocals" rather than "featuring" occurred previously on Jay's 2013 track "Tom Ford", during which she performs a short interlude under her rap alter-ego "Third World Trill". She also does this on "BBC" from the same album, rapping "My mothafucker is a billionaire mothafucker, you head that shit / I said my mothafucka is a billionaire mothafucker". You'll also notice Jay's vocals appear uncredited on "***Flawless" by from Bey's 2013 self-titeld album; she uses a sample from Jay's 2013 track "Crown".
Jay's mom appears on the third track "Smile", providing the outro. Her previous collaborative credit is from "December 4th" off 2003's The Black Album, in which she provided snippets of stories about Jay growing up that were used as interludes. She also appears in Jay's concert DVD Fade To Black, where she can be seen entering the studio to lay her vocals for Jay.
Blue has appeared twice previous on songs by her parents. At the end of Jay's 2012 loosie "Glory" she provides "baby noises". That was enough to make her the "young person ever to appear on a Billboard chart," when the track entered the R&B/Hip-Hop charts at number 74. She would also appear on Beyonce's 2013 track "Blue", calling her mom "Bee-sy-ay".
These artists wrote "Todo O Mundo e Ninguem", which was used as a sample in "Marcy Me". Their words are provided at the end of the outro. Tozé Brito and José Cid both provided quotes on Jay using the sample.
I was amazed when I knew they wanted to use the theme. I still don’t understand how they, in New York, discovered a song released here as a single in 1970. JAY-Z is famous worldwide. The request got here at SPA [Sociedade Portuguesa de Autores] about six weeks ago, and we authorized right away, we negotiated an… appealing percentage. And we got a symbolic sum.Cid:
Time goes by and Quarteto 1111’s work is ignored. [Being sampled by JAY-Z] is a way of making justice.
Addional Vocals: James Fauntleroy
It was fun working with her and all the Roc Nation people. It was a crew of people out there just having a good ass time and basically I was just doing everything creatively that I wanted to do.
Kim is a gospel singer who has previously worked with Missy Elliott, Stevie Wonder, R. Kelly, and Frank Ocean. Frank is a featured artist on the previous track "Caught Their Eyes", and Stevie Wonder is sampled in the song "Smile".
The choice to have Kim Burrell on the album is slightly perplexing. In January 2017 she was quoted as calling homosexuality "perverted" during a sermon, and even defended those comments. Everyone from Pharrell to Ellen DeGeneres announced they'd be keeping their distance from the gospel singer. Considering on "Smile" Jay reveals his mother is a lesbian who has fallen in love with another woman, placing a homophobic singer on the album seems out of place.
"4:44" samples "Late Nights & Heartbreaks" by Hannah Williams and the Affirmations. During an interview with Rolling Stone, No I.D. revealed why he chose this sample for the incredible title track:
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. I boxed all of those parts in and said, here, what are you going do with this?The sample proved pivotal, getting Jay out of bed one morning at 4:44am to record his vocals.
True story, at 4:44 he wakes up in the morning and writes that song. He hits me a little bit after. It's literally the way a producer and an artist should work – nudging and pushing, creating boundaries and allowing him to be the center.
Steve has found himself all over this record. He performs Guitar, Bass, Celesta, Electric Piano, Synthesizer, and Hammond Organ, featuring on 3 tracks. Now let's try and trace how he made his way to JAY-Z recording sessions.
Steve has been playing guitar and bass on top-tier releases for well over a decade now. You can find him on Rick Ross' 2010 album Teflon Don, as well as projects from Rihanna, Big Sean, J. Cole, Nas, Ne-Yo, Vince Staples, and even Chrisette Michele, all of whom have ties to JAY-Z. During a 2010 interview it was revealed he was collaborating with No I.D., and following that thread, his connection to this project is clear.
In 2011 No I.D. formed a musical collective known as Cocaine 80s. They have released 3 EPs and 1 LP. We know that No I.D. is signed to Roc Nation, and the production arm of Kanye's G.O.O.D. Music, Very G.O.O.D. Beats. This explains the connection to Big Sean, who is also signed to G.O.O.D. Music. It's no surprise No I.D. would want someone he knows and trusts playing the instruments on this record.
Nate plays the French Horn on "Bam" and the guitar and piano on "Marcy Me". He is the lead singer and guitarist of the band A Million Billion Dying Suns, a San Francisco act that also includes guitarist Steve Wyreman, who plays instruments on 3 tracks on 4:44.
Nate has worked with Jhene Aiko, on 2014's Souled Out, and Aiko is part of No I.D.'s Cocaine 80s collective. His tumblr page announces that he's worked with No I.D. before. He also worked heavily on Logic's 2015 album The Incredible True Story, a record that Steve Wyreman also helped with.
Crystal plays Flugelhorn and Trumpet on "Bam". In this Instagram post she screen shots the credits and shouts out Steve Wyreman, Jonah Levine, and Kenneth Whalum, as well as featured artist Damien Marley. Evidently, she was heavily involved in those recording sessions that took place in the Rema community during June 2017. A full break down of those sessions can be found here, with commentary by AintNoJigga.
She has been part of the Carter Empire since as far back as 2007 as part of Bey's all-female band Suga Mama, as the trumpeter. She was still performing that role on 2014's On The Run collaborative tour, where she had first-hand experience with JAY-Z:
Every night OTR tour, I watched @S_C_ (JAY-Z) tell us, 'Dream Big, Be Unrealistic'She also performed trumpet on Bey's 2013 track "Blow". Solidfying the connection, she featured on "Brave" by Jhene Aiko from Souled Out, an album Nate Mercereau also worked on. Furthermore, Crystal's husband, Michael Law Thomas, has worked heavily wih Common and John Legend, and has been the go-to engineer for No I.D. ever since No I.D. was promoted to Def Jam vice president in 2014.
Levine plays the Tenor Sax and Trombone on "Bam". He leads the Jonah Levine Collective, who released their first record in 2017. Further connections aren't forthcoming! But the album is very chill, I suggest you give it a spin.