Maybe you felt something in the air Friday. A vibration or a premonition, something nearly imperceptible, but recognizably sexy. Your dog probably noticed it first, like approaching summer storm.
Jay-Z’s 13th studio album, 4:44, arrived online at the end of last week and it came with some choice words for the Prince estate. Unfortunately, the album is only available to folks who subscribed to Tidal, Jay’s perennial third-place streaming service, before last week. Otherwise you need Sprint to scam your way into a free trial with access.
Luckily your humble blogger uses Sprint (not to brag), and I’m here to pick apart all the beef, line by line.
I sat down with Prince, eye to eye / He told me his wishes before he died
Most of the explicit Prince references are on the album highlight “Caught Their Eyes.” While Frank Ocean does donuts over a Nina Simone sample, Jay takes shots at so many phonies.
This is the start of the second verse, and given the squabbling over Prince’s estate, it’s quite the statement. He didn’t have a will, so naming heirs and sorting out the rights to his catalog has been left to the courts, Prince’s surviving family, and some close advisers. We’ll get to them in a second.
This line is likely a reference to when Prince pulled his music off all streaming services but Tidal, then gave the company access to exclusives and new music.
“Tidal is a new company, it’s brand new,” Prince told Ebony at the time “They’re just getting their footing, and I think when there’s a company like that, or the OWN network -- situations where we finally get into a position to run things -- we all should help. It’s been a lot of fun.”
N***as'll rip your shit off Tidal just to spite you / Ahh, what did I do? / 'Cept try to free you
This line’s off of “Smile,” which is mostly a coming out celebration for Jay’s mother, but touches on themes he’ll get to later in the album.
A lot of 4:44 is about group economics. It’s the idea that a community can reach new levels of empowerment by supporting each other financially. Throughout the album Jay doles out investment advice and encourages listeners to support black-owned businesses. The goal is generational wealth, he says, which is too often out of reach for African-Americans.
By creating his own management company, record label, streaming service and more, Jay-Z claims he’s “freeing” black artists and entrepreneurs to generate wealth for only themselves.
Prince advocated self-determination and representation too. Besides the quote about OWN, he supported STEM programs for inner cities in the hopes of creating more “black Mark Zuckerbergs.”
But, of course, Prince’s music is available to stream everywhere now. Jay-Z’s got his sights on the man responsible.
Now, Londell McMillan, he must be color blind / They only see green from them purple eyes
L. Londell McMillan was Prince’s lawyer for years. After Prince died, McMillan negotiated a bunch of lucrative deals to help pay the estate’s hefty tax bill.
Those deals included a $31 million licensing agreement with Universal Music Group and returning Prince’s catalog to streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. Now Universal is backing out of the deal, claiming McMillan misled them, and Tidal is embroiled in a legal battle with the estate over streaming rights.
McMillan isn’t representing the estate anymore, but three heirs have kept him as an adviser.
“Yes, I heard the track!” he tweeted on Friday. “Not focusing on a diss track now. Focused on not letting WBR control masters. I do like the beat.”
This guy had 'Slave' on his face / You think he wanted the masters with his masters?
Prince fought harder than just about anyone for artistic independence and full ownership of his work. In 1993, when his contract with Warner Bros. limited the amount of music he could release in a year and kept control of his master recordings, Prince rebelled. He changed his name to a symbol and performed with the word “slave” on his face. (He also burned a copy of the Star Tribune on live TV.)
That protest helped free Prince from his contract, allowing him to release as much music as he wanted. He entered back into a deal with Warner in 2014, however, to regain control of his master recordings, which the estate still controls.
You greedy bastards sold tickets to walk through his house / I'm surprised you ain't auction off the casket
This is the last line explicitly about Prince on the record, and it’s searing, but the truth is a little more complicated.
Yes, Paisley Park opened for tours last year. Fans can pay between $40 and $100 for a tour of the Chanhassen complex where Prince lived and worked. The operation is run by the same folks who did Graceland and, sure, they nickel and dime you a bit on photos and merch.
Reviews are mixed and it’s all a little corporate, but the parties involved say all the money is going to preservation efforts, and Prince himself was involved in the planning. Also, the tour only goes through semi-public rooms, not his private residence. (Here’s the full rundown.)
Jay might have a point about Prince’s remains -- they’re part of the tour, though he was cremated.