Eminem and Jay-Z are the two biggest (living) names in rap, and for the first of their two co-headlining shows at Yankee Stadium, on Monday, all the chatter you hear these days about the death of the superstar and “the fragmented digital landscape” was drowned out. While the rappers equitably flipped the order of their sets from the two-night stand they played in Detroit earlier this month — Eminem, the out-of-towner, went on first, and the hometown hero Jay-Z closed things out — they also kept a competitive edge, staging a sort of arms race of guest stars. Eminem brought out the biggest gun when he introduced the reclusive Dr. Dre. But Jay boasted dazzling quantity: he had Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Drake and Chris Martin, who sang the hook on “Heart of the City.”
Eminem began his set with a vicious, stomping rendition of “Won’t Back Down,” from Recovery. The song, built around howling riffs, proved that just because you’re a rapper doesn’t mean you can’t be an arena rocker, too. Em played with a hard-hitting backup band — as did Jay-Z, who later took the stage to the strains of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Em, wearing a black t-shirt and black shorts, even resembled a rock-band roadie. This understated choice of outfit was gaudily, gloriously offset by 50 Cent, the first megastar guest of the evening, who emerged in a boxy bomber jacket covered with Gucci logos and accented with multicolored light-up piping. Performing “Patiently Waiting” and “In Da Club,” he looked like a cross between Paid in Full-era Rakim and a character from the movie Tron.
But such showmanship couldn’t compare to Eminem’s introduction of Dr. Dre: Part of the way through “The Real Slim Shady,” the beat cut off, Eminem’s band hovered on some momentous, foreboding chords, and Dre took the stage to roars. With Eminem in the Snoop role, the two duetted on “Nothin’ But A G Thang.” Dr. Dre also said that his long-awaited album Detox was coming soon — a familiar promise that resulted in what might’ve been the night’s only shrugs.
The early part of Jay-Z’s set was given over to Kanye West, whose presence was a resounding reminder that superstars are alive and well. That Jay offered up his prime stage time to West — who performed “Power (Remix),” “Good Life,” and several other songs — was either an example of dazzling confidence on Jay’s part (no one can steal my thunder) or an acknowledgment that Kanye, hot on the comeback trail, outshines Jay at the moment. Knowing the savvy Jay-Z, he probably meant to imply both.
Whereas Eminem had been a frenetic ball of motion, Jay-Z was slow-moving and deliberate, telegraphing his regal gravitas. After coming out to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the rapper, who wore a complicated leather jacket, remained planted at a mic stand while he performed the smoldering “Dynasty Intro.” As midnight came and went, and some fans started heading out, he offered a profound understatement, announcing that the true fans could stick around and experience some true-fan-type material — little-known cuts, it turned out, like “Izzo” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.”
After his final song — the Collision Course version of “Encore” — Jay led the crowd in several stadium-wide waves. Those who hadn’t made for the parking lot were his willing playthings. “Let’s try it again,” Jay-Z said after two waves. It was the closest he came to a human-scale moment — he clearly didn’t want this outsize night to come to an end.