For roughly 75 minutes on Monday night, Jay-Z led a New York takeover of downtown Austin.
The proof came near the end of his special AmEX-Sync concert for SXSW, when Jay-Z asked some 2,700 fans in attendance how many New Yorkers were in the house before launching into “Empire State of Mind,” his juggernaut ode to the city. The response drowned out a similar Texas roll call, showing just how much of the publishing, media and entertainment world had temporarily relocated from NYC to Austin for the fest.
Downsizing from his usual arena-scale shows to the more intimate setting of Austin City Limits Live at Moody Theater, Jay-Z exuded charisma from the moment he opened with “What More Can I Say,” coolly firing off rhymes into a pedestal mic at the center of the X-shaped stage. Later, he trolled its outer edges, ripping through a hit list that was at least partially determined by requests made via Twitter and included “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” “99 Problems,” “Big Pimpin'” and “Public Service Announcement.”
Through it all, he remained relaxed, calm and confident as ever. It was like the equivalent of watching a preseason exhibition game for a professional athlete; without a ton at stake, this was mostly a chance for Jay-Z to stay in performance shape and have some fun while he’s at it.
One component of Jay-Z’s appeal that became apparent from experiencing most of his best songs up close is his ability to drastically change characters and demeanors from song to song, and do it in a believable way. Within the space of a few songs the crowd got suave Jigga (“Girls Girls Girls” and “Excuse Me Miss”), petulant Jigga (“Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” “99 Problems,” “On To The Next One”), CEO Jigga (“Big Pimpin'”, “Empire State of Mind”) and the newly devotional Jigga, as shown near set’s end with “Glory,” his ode to infant daughter Blue Ivy.
With a production setup of just some overhead video screens and lighting, and a backing band consisting of a DJ, two keyboard players and a drummer, the night was a chance to see one of the world’s best rappers in low-frills environment with the intimate surroundings as the main selling point.
That fact wasn’t lost on Jay-Z who had no difficulty drawing the already packed-tight crowd in closer to him for the entire time.