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by Jay-Z

The stark introduction of this double Grammy-nominated hip-hop production makes arresting use of abrupt looping on its underlying sample (a deeply cool soul cover of ‘Late Nights & Heartbreak’ by Hannah Williams & the Affirmations). Far from being some kind of throwaway gimmick, this foreshadows the essentially unsettling character of the musical structure in the main body of the song.

For a start, the song’s most frequently recurring musical section (first heard at 0:26-0:42) is six bars long, but it’s constructed from a four-bar section of the sampled track by looping the third bar three times. I doff my cap to the track’s producer No ID for this simple, yet radical, production stunt, because it’s at once something that almost everyone would instinctively have shied away from, and something that I think powerfully underlines the painful awkwardness and vulnerability Jay-Z is projecting in these rhymes. It’s also great how, once we’ve had three of these six-bar units, the following six-bar unit (which doesn’t include any loops at all) slows down slightly towards its close, but without the section duration getting any longer, so the return of the main six-bar section feels like it comes in a bit too early — again, a fabulously discomfiting effect which is totally in keeping with the emotional message, in my view.

On top of that, Jay-Z’s raps don’t neatly follow the music’s 4x6-bar ‘A-A-A-B’ structure, which lends a stream-of-consciousness authenticity to his extended lyrical mea culpa, as well as contextualising a couple of key moments (“you matured faster than me, I wasn’t ready, so I apologise” at 1:25 and “if my children knew, I don’t even know what I would do” at 3:34) as more introspective by virtue of their coinciding with ‘B’ section’s beat-less ritenuto tail. All in all, this is a production with real depth, and a shining example of how much artistic value sample-based musicians can generate over and above the musical content of the sampled building blocks they work with. Oh, and I for one will definitely be adding that Hannah Williams & the Affirmations album to my shopping list…