On Sunday night at the Made in America festival in Philadelphia, Jay-Z was busy directing crowd traffic. There were two competing mosh pits near the stage, and the rapper urged a few revelers to step aside so that the rings could unite. “I promise you – you’ll have the time of your life,” he said. Moments later, with the audience arrayed for maximum mayhem, Jay-Z launched into the pummeling scrape of “99 Problems.”
It was a significant show for Jay-Z: He was anchoring his own festival, which has grown into a popular annual event since starting in Philadelphia in 2012. More importantly, it was the first time the rapper performed songs from his recently released 4:44 in the U.S., a trial run before he embarks on a nationwide tour at the end of October.
4:44 succeeded in commanding attention when it came out at the end of June – even Monica Lewinsky, who is not known for hip-hop commentary, applauded the album as “refreshing and bracing.” The LP opened with a symbolic death in the form of “Kill Jay Z,” and this freed the rapper to address things he may have avoided in the past, including a rocky patch in his marriage with Beyoncé, the eye-opening aspects of fatherhood and the importance of supporting the efforts of other black entrepreneurs. “This album is about Shawn Carter, Jay-Z, opening up,” producer No. I.D. told Rolling Stone.
No I.D. is the only producer credited on 4:44 other than Jay-Z, and he helped create a record that is brazenly out of step with the majority of contemporary airwave hip-hop. Brimming with tuneful loops of jazz, soul and funk, No I.D.’s beats brought Jay-Z back towards the style he favored over two decades ago when he released his debut, Reasonable Doubt. Many of the songs are funky but unassuming, relying on textured samples of live instruments rather than the menacing blots of low-end and lacerating drum programming that characterize contemporary production.
This presented Jay-Z with an interesting challenge at Made in America: How do you incorporate this particular group of new songs into a live set, especially a headlining one at an outdoor festival, where nuance is often thrust aside – as it was before Jay-Z by both the Chainsmokers and Marshmello – in favor of a giddy, headlong rush? The crowd was mud-smeared, since much of the ground was still swampy from the previous day’s rain, beer-addled and primed for pogoing. This meant the introspective side of new tracks like “4:44” and “Marcy Me” were likely to be buzzkills.
But Jay-Z – who wore a white hoody, white sneakers and black sweatpants and rapped with nonchalant authority in front of a massive, metallic balloon dog designed with help from artist Jeff Koons – used sequencing to his advantage, galvanizing the audience with jarring transitions between songs. Some of these seemed to follow to their own logic: Jay-Z moved from the cutting, cooled-out throwback “Where I’m From” to the quiet, reflective new track “Marcy Me” to the bright pianos and battering-ram hook of “Empire State of Mind” – three dissimilar songs united by their focus on New York City. Frank Ocean’s recorded vocals served as the common thread between new track “Caught Their Eyes” and “No Church in the Wild,” which appeared on Watch the Throne, Jay-Z’s 2011 collaborative album with Kanye West.
Other segues were inspired juxtapositions of rugged and pillowy, kinetic and contemplative. He followed “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt” and “Beach is Better,” glinting and uber-modern, with “Family Feud,” a soft gospel-like number that featured recorded vocals from Beyoncé and injections of neo-soul from Jay-Z’s walloping rhythm section.
One of the sharpest moments of cross-catalog whiplash came when the rapper decelerated from the brassy barrage of “U Don’t Know” to the 4:44 cut “Moonlight,” the night’s most subdued song. Then he ratcheted the energy back up in jagged steps: During “The Story of O.J.”, he burrowed into the spaces between the crackling piano and vocals sampled from Nina Simone, settling into a joyful groove; moments later he killed the beat to rap a capella; then he morphed again, cueing the buffeting instrumental from “Niggas in Paris.”
This song served as a turning point in the set: After “Niggas in Paris,” Jay-Z stuck to the arsenal of hits in his back catalog. Leaving the new stuff behind meant fewer surprises – notably he did not perform 4:44‘s title track, a forthright apology to Beyoncé for marital infidelity that’s currently a hit at radio – and fewer changes in dynamics, but world-beating numbers like “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” sound as crushing now as they did when they came out. His band reimagined “Hard Knock Life” as clipped, fantastically lax funk; pairings like “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)” and “Big Pimpin'” sent the crowd into frenzied rap-alongs.
“Big Pimpin'” is an homage to Houston hip-hop, and Jay-Z finished the song by offering a quick prayer for the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. This was one of several tributes he squeezed into the final portion of his set: he also asked the crowd to sing “Happy Birthday” – both the old-fashioned version and the vastly more energetic Stevie Wonder variant – for Beyoncé, who turns 36 Monday. (Though she was spotted watching her husband on Sunday, Beyoncé did not join him onstage.) Jay-Z finished his performance with “Numb/Encore” in honor of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, who died by suicide in July. “Let’s go full rock star on ’em tonight,” the rapper declared.
Jay-Z was absent for several minutes before reappearing on a different stage to perform a brisk encore that included “Show You How,” “Money Ain’t a Thing,” “Can I Get A…” and “Allure.” But excitement peaked when Philadelphia native Meek Mill joined Jay-Z onstage to careen through his breathless, surging “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro).” This time, no traffic direction from Jay-Z was needed – the crowd knew exactly what to do: shout, heave and rush towards the stage.