Watching Justin Timberlake and Jay Z interact onstage – as they did at Yankee Stadium last night – it feels like the two have forever been friends and collaborators, spending their days filming Bud Light commercials and their nights walking to their double dates while chanting “Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!” And yet, as lore goes, the two only joined forces on a whim last year after booking recording studios down the hall from one another. It’s an inconvenient fact, one easy to ignore when watching Justin act as Little Steven to Jay’s Bruce, the animated bird flittering just above the rapper’s left shoulder. He plays guitar on “You Don’t Know,” sings Pharrell’s parts on “Give It 2 Me” and – less successfully – hams it up as the cop in “99 Problems.” With the temperature just dipping below three digits, as seen on the big-screens – it looks like he’s not breaking a sweat, which is just impossible but also maybe true. Jay – whose prior experience as a hypeman is, uh, limited – two-steps during “Señorita,” dresses up for “Suit & Tie” and (perhaps most importantly) gives Justin a lot of sandbox to play in. It’s an incredible relationship based on generosity, mutual respect and millions and millions of dollars.
Yes, the Legends of the Summer series is a fairly brilliant Vegas nightclub act masquerading as an iPod shuffle, a concert that connects two overlapping-though-distinct fanbases. Like Eminem before him, Timberlake brings a lot of white faces into the audience, so – for the first time since maybe MTV Unplugged – “Jigga What, Jigga Who” was cleaned up to its radio edit title. He also adds energy, motion and light, as well as much-needed change for Jay, who has largely been performing the same show for several years. For his part, Jay fills time where Justin would probably not be able to: Having gone platinum on twelve separate albums, the rapper’s catalog is unmatched. Justin – comparatively flaunting a half-page resume – is far more reliant on newer material, devoting seven minutes each to the great “Pusher Love Girl” and “Let the Groove Get In,” another five to the “Tunnel Vision.” (Jay’s “FuckwithmeyouknowIgotit” and “Tom Ford” take about five minutes, combined.) Maybe it’s a surprise, maybe it’s not, but the two artists’ recent offerings – skewered by many writers – mostly sound like hits when surrounded by nothing but hits. (This excludes Timberlake’s “Take Back the Night,” which – in an open stadium – sounds like he’s singing into an aquarium.)
At Yankee Stadium, there’s no bigger moment than when Justin – his voice nasal, as if drawn through a radio wire from the 1940s – opens his golden vocal cords and lets out “New York, New York.” Cameras go up, people freak out. It leads directly into “Empire State of Mind,” which – while the audio equivalent of sitting inside a Chase Bank branch – gets a huge reaction. And then Alicia Keys comes out to sing the chorus and it feels like the stadium is going to sink into the Earth from all the shaking. People love special guests! (Similarly, Timbaland sauntered out from the wings to help Justin with “Sexy Back.”)
The whole thing is a tag-team effort, expertly choreographed from the lights and the Tennessee Kids’ dance moves to the outfits: The two enter the stage as if crossing a meadow, both in white short-sleeved shirts. Later, this is changed to black, with Jay’s tee shirt emblazoned with the phrase “NOVUM PRAECEPTA,” his frequent saying and hashtag “New Rules” back-translated into Latin. 20/20 Experience’s “Mirrors” bleeds into the breakdown for “Love of My Life,” which – through a bit of rev-ups – builds into a soul-clap of a chant that becomes the underbelly to Jay-Z’s “Run This Town.” It’s an endless ping-pong match; “My Love” and “Hard Knock Life” are played fairly early on, a signifier that there’s still a million hits left to choose from. The visuals behind Jay Z during “PSA” are static-y TV news reports showing policemen, oil rigs and George W. Bush; soon after, Justin is backed by art deco designs and his band of brassmen, high-stepping and freaking like an Atlanta marching band leader. In the middle of the night, Justin drops in a quick Juicy J impression, and dances all hips and shoulders like T.I.; by the end, he’s by Jay’s side, dedicating “Young Forever” to Trayvon Martin. Sometimes they’re Oscar and Felix, sometimes they’re mop and bucket.