In the nearly two decades since Jay Z first appeared on the hip-hop scene, an ex-crack-dealing Brooklynite with a sweet cadence and tragic wit, the man born Shawn Carter has worn many hats: record label head, clothier, restaurateur and most recently, sports agent. Still, as the rap icon made clear to the St. Paul crowd on the opening night of his Magna Carter World Tour – standing front-and-center, smiling as he adjusted his black leather Brooklyn Nets hat and sparkling gold chains after a nearly two-hour, tirelessly energetic performance – performing live still gives him the biggest thrill. “I’ll never get used to this shit,” he told the Xcel Energy Center crowd, after ripping through a synth-drenched rendition of “Encore” at the start of a triumphant five-song farewell to a momentous career-spanning set.
Jay Z hasn’t exactly been far from the stage in recent years – from his Watch The Throne tour with Kanye West to his Made in America performance, not to mention a string of Barclays Center shows last fall and his Legends of Summer tour with Justin Timberlake earlier this year. Amazingly though, Saturday night’s performance marked the rapper’s first Stateside show as part of a proper Jay Z tour in over four years.
With the stage mostly to himself, he didn’t pull any punches: There was no back-and-forth vocal volley as he did with JT; no double-digit renditions of any hit singles as with West. Even the stage setup was relatively stripped-down, with its standard set of transparent neon-lit risers and massive video screens flooded all evening with recurring images of government surveillance video, drone strikes and explosions. (Jay and Barack: talk it out, dudes!) More than anything, the show was an exercise in Jay’s ability to deftly maneuver between hits – while incorporating new material off this past summer’s middling Magna Carta, Holy Grail (“Holy Grail,” “Tom Ford”) into his time-tested bounty of setlist favorites.
Jay dutifully ripped through his massive arsenal of hits, including crowd-participatory renditions of Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life classics “N***a What, N***a Who (Originator 99)” and “Hard Knock Life,” and an almost industrial-rock spin on The Black Album gem “99 Problems.” He also littered his set with a wealth of more recent smashes including “Empire State of Mind” and “On To The Next One.”
What proved more exciting, though, was the unexpected adrenaline he brought to his new material. On wax, Magna Carta generally failed to deliver the emotional goods. In concert however, the new tracks – particularly a swaggering rendition of the funk-laden “Picasso Baby,” during which Jay flashed a massive smile as he rapped “Oh, what a feeling!” and “Crown” – proved highly engaging. Many compliments are due to his stellar four-piece backing band, which on Saturday included legendary beatsmith and Magna Carta producer Timbaland on the decks. (An additional unexpected highlight of the night came midway through the show, when Jay ceded the spotlight to Timbaland for a five-minute run-through of the producer’s signature skuzzy beats and loops).
In the live arena, Jay’s ability to vary his signature stutter-step vocal cadence from one track to the next still remains his bread and butter. It was on more sparse older material then, like “Dead Presidents II” off his groundbreaking 1996 debut album, Reasonable Doubt, that Jay Z shined the most on Saturday with his airtight vocals – “Who wanna bet us that we don’t touch leathers/Stack cheddars forever, live treacherous all the etceteras” – and an excellent representation of what collaborator Rick Rubin was referring to when he recently likened the rapper’s ever-evolving technique to “a solo by a jazz artist where . . . each version of it is phrased differently with different accents and high points” in Vanity Fair.
It was in such moments of simplicity on Saturday – with nothing more than a twinkling keyboard melody, a simple beat and Jay Z’s voice – that the rapper reminded us of an important fact: Despite his many offshoot business ventures, paparazzi-level fame and arena-scale shows, he remains first and foremost one of the game’s most gifted, enduring MCs.
“U Don’t Know”
“On to the Next One”
“Beach Is Better”
“Dead Presidents II”
“No Church in the Wild”
“Somewhere in America”
“Jigga What, Jigga Who””Dirt Off Your Shoulder””I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)”
“N***s in Paris”
“Run This Town”
“Empire State of Mind”
“Hard Knock Life”