JAY-Z's Latest Album Deserves To Be Watched As Well As Listened To

Through a series of beautiful visual accompaniments, 4:44 has become more than just a decent rap album - and he has Beyoncé to thank

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In the newly-released video for 'Adnis', the 11th track on 4:44, Mahershala Ali dances in black and white against a heavy bag - jab, jab, cross, uppercut - sweat beading on his forehead and torso as sunlight leaks in through what appears to be a cell window. For two minutes and 27 seconds, with JAY-Z's unhurried narration playing over it, the actor stares straight at the camera, grasps the cell's windowpane and washes his bleeding knuckles in a dirty sink. An old man smokes in a gloomy doorway. Ali stares into a mirror and furiously clenches the muscles in his face for just long enough to make you feel uncomfortable, before the screen fades to black.

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We've come a long way from the private yachts and popped corks of 'Big Pimpin''.

Through audio alone, JAY-Z's 13th studio album is very good. A mature, self-reflective work that tackles race, family, those infidelity rumours (true apparently) and legacy, but with the addition of a series of brilliant visuals it becomes something far more interesting.

Music videos are nothing new. But by building on the scrap heap of music television (R.I.P), as well as the rise of the 'Visual Album' (first championed by Beyonce in 2015's intensely personal Lemonade no less), artists like JAY-Z can now make unorthodox, challenging videos with enough freedom to expand on the lyrics they're supporting, rather than the ones we've been used to — trimmed down and doused in chlorine for adverts and daytime TV viewers.

While most big-name artists will publish two or three videos to accompany an album launch, more a courtesy than anything, JAY-Z has followed his wife's lead and made each of the five videos for 4:44 (with more on the way), its own living, breathing body of work. With visuals ranging from dusty, old school animation interweaved with softly scathing lyrics on race ('The Story of O.J'), to ruminations on family and a feud with Kanye ('Kill JAY-Z'), while on screen a young man careers through empty streets and thrashing seas in slow motion.

For most fans, the worry prior to the release of 4:44 was that JAY-Z had missed the boat. How could a 46-year-old who's been a tycoon for close-to-two decades keep up with Soundcloud, mumble rap, Xanax and 16-year-olds with face tats and Ferraris?

But by bucking the often-jarring modern rap trend of using multiple producers across an album - No I.D. (real name Dion Wilson) made every beat - as well as a lyrical approach that abandons the middle-aged material boasts of 2013's underwhelming Magna Carta Holy Grail in favour of a less frantic, laid-bare style - along with his newly-cool video aesthetics - JAY-Z has created arguably his best work in a decade.

When asked by the New York Times recently about whether there were concerns with Jay being taken seriously as an old man in a young man's game, No I.D.'s answer was unerring.

"Absolutely. A couple times we said, "Has there been anyone in any genre that really tapped into themselves on a new level at that age?" It's really kind of unheard-of across the board, not just in rap. But there are certain cheat codes that are available now — you have streaming, and the ability to listen to everything that ever happened. We could gauge: Why does Adele do this? Why did Led Zeppelin do this? Why did Jimi Hendrix do this? What are the common threads? Honesty, vulnerability, pain — these are things that always supersede the trends of the day."

Now if only he'd forget about the whole Tidal thing.