“I put together a special evening for y’all,” Jay-Z announced during Tuesday night’s sold-out show at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The platinum-selling rapper had reason to pull out all the stops during the Garden’s first hip-hop concert in several years: The show kicked off a tour promoting the recently released The Black Album, the eighth and supposedly final album of J-Hova’s mega-successful career. Over the next two-and-a-half hours, the Jigga man came through on his promise, delivering an adrenalized, star-studded extravaganza, proceeds from which went to Russell Simmons’ Hip-Hop Summit Action Network and the Shawn Carter Scholarship Fund.
Following an intro by boxing announcer Michael Buffer (of “Let’s get ready to rumble” fame), Jay-Z took the stage dressed in a black jacket and black jeans. He led off with “What More Can I Say,” a Black Album track explaining his impending retirement. Jay was then joined by a live band featuring the Roots’ ?uestlove on drums. (The band would alternate accompaniment duties with longtime Hova DJ Just Blaze throughout the night.) Jay then performed “Hovi Baby,” a skittery track from last year’s The Blueprint 2, which he followed with a short-but-speedy a capella verse.
After the classic “Can I Get a . . .,” Jay plowed through the Timbaland-produced Black Album banger “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” He was then joined by protege Memphis Bleek for several older jams, including the hits “Big Pimpin” and “Hard Knock Life.”
Jay paused to give props to a slew of fallen hip-hoppers, including Tupac, Biggie Smalls, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez, Big Pun and Jam Master Jay. Proclaiming “I have to pay respect to the past to show y’all the future,” Jay brought out Biggie and Tupac’s mothers — Violetta Wallace and Afeni Shakur — and presented each with donations to their sons’ charitable foundations.
Jay was then joined by the State Property crew, a group of proteges who released their first record on Jay’s Roc-a-fella Records in 2001. Jay and Co. performed “What We Do,” a stellar track from the 2003 debut by State Property soldier Freeway, followed by the raucous, Freeway-led “Rock the Mic.” The crowd onstage grew even larger as Jay brought out M.O.P. for “U Don’t Know,” a shout-heavy Blueprint 2 track on which the Brooklyn posse guested.
Missy Elliott then joined the fracas for an abbreviated version of “Is That Yo Bitch,” after which she promptly departed.
When the stage cleared, Jay welcomed Beyonce Knowles for “Crazy in Love,” the Hova-assisted smash single from Knowles’ 2003 solo debut. Surrounded by dancers clad in matching black satin skirts, Knowles also performed her own “Baby Boy,” and “Summertime Song.” On the latter song the Wu Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah made an appearance wearing his familiar embossed bathrobe.
After Knowles departed, Hova kept up the intensity with “Ain’t No Nigga,” which featured a fur-clad Foxy Brown.
Mary J. Blige then joined Jay for “Can’t Knock the Hustle” and the mournful “Song Cry.” Proclaiming Hova “the greatest rapper of our time,” Blige was left alone for a mini-set that featured the Dr. Dre-produced 2001 hit “Family Affair,” and the sexy slo-jam “Everything.”
Jay returned with the Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams for the Williams solo track “Frontin,” during which the sound partially cut out for almost two minutes. Williams assisted Jay-Z on “I Just Wanna Love U” and “Change Clothes,” Neptunes-produced singles from 2000’s The Dynasty: Roc la Familia and The Black Album, respectively.
Jay was left alone for “Encore,” a soul-drenched Black Album standout. After the song, he left the stage in darkness while the crowd clamored for more. When an off-stage Jigga said, “I need you to scream until your lungs get sore,” the 20,000 in attendance responded with a hearty chant of “Hova! Hova!”
Jay then re-emerged with R. Kelly in tow, both clad in white hooded jumpsuits. The two performed the title track from 2001’s The Best of Both Worlds, a collaboration album Jigga declined to promote in the wake of Kelly’s statutory rape charges. Following the bouncy Jay-Kelly hit “Fiesta,” Kelly crooned his way through a mini-set of his own that included the sex-fueled jams “Ignition” and “Step in the Name of Love.”
Before Jay’s farewell song, he announced, “I’m in heavy, heavy negotiations to bring the Nets to Brooklyn,” referring to his recent efforts to purchase New Jersey’s cash-strapped NBA franchise.
“I don’t wanna party with y’all no more. I wanna vibe with y’all,” Jay said before closing the show with “December 4th,” a Black Album track featuring voiceovers from Jay’s mother, Gloria Carter. When the song ended, Jay stood motionless at the front of the stage, his left arm extended in the air. He may have been speechless for the first time in his career, but after nearly three hours of career-summing entertainment he needed to say no more.