On Sunday night, not-so-retired rapper and Def Jam CEO Jay-Z rang in the anniversary of his 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt, with a heavily buzzed-about show at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. In classic jiggy fashion, Jay-Z arrived on the stage in a ’96 Lexus. He was decked out in a white tux and black silk scarf, and backed by ?uestlove of the Roots’ band for the night: Illadelphonics and the Hustler Symphony orchestra, complete with strings, percussions, horns and even a harp. The crowd made diamonds with their fingers — the “Hova” sign — as Jay slowly stalked the stage. With a slow “Hova Hova” chant building, the rapper launched into “Regrets,” the heaviest and most somber song on the album. Over the course of the brief evening, he would unroll the entire album in reverse.
During “Ain’t No Nigga,” Foxy Brown burst onto the stage, finally healthy after a yearlong battle with sudden hearing loss. “Obviously her surgery was a success!” Jay-Z said after the Ill Nana brought the house down with her debut verse. The rapper flipped the lyric “22 two’s” into “44 fours,” because, as he announced, he’s now “twice as powerful.” Memphis Bleek reunited with Jay on “Coming of Age,” bringing the signature nonchalant swagger that has become synonymous with the Roc, both of them swaying arm and arm in three-piece suits.
Throughout the show five mega screens told a story to accompany the songs. During “Politics as Usual,” as Jay rapped “You fuck around, you get your guys hit/ They built me to be filthy on some I-do-or-die-shit,” images of the riots at Tianenman Square, and Che Guevara and Fidel Castro lit up the stage. On “Brooklyn’s Finest,” his duet with the late Notorious B.I.G, Jay did B.I.G’s verse while stills of the late rapper performing the song were displayed.
The Radio City audience was packed with Roc-A-Fella diehards, sporting Jay-Z shirts, singing every song (not just the singles) line for line. The fans raised their hands, called out to Jay, and sang along like a boisterous church ceremony. “We got the whole orchestra out there with us, ain’t no other choice but to give it up to that. To hear original sampled hip-hop tracks laid in pure musical form, it’s the best,” Memphis Bleek later said on the red carpet outside of the Rainbow Room. ?uestlove added on his way into the afterparty, “It was a classic moment. Very rarely does hip-hop get seen in the form where it’s a work of art.”
The Reasonable Doubt set ended with “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” featuring Hova’s beau Beyoncé on Mary J Blige’s hook, giving a little bit more edge to the record. After a brief intermission and quick wardrobe change, the orchestra was replaced with DJ Just Blaze.
While fans were still running back to their seats, drinks in hand, Jay launched into an encore set of hits from his Roc-A-Fella days, clad in oversized jeans and a black T-shirt. As midnight approached, Jay performed an a cappella medley of verses from nearly 20 crowd favorites. The crowd was so hardcore that the album cuts got as big a response as the megahits: “You Don’t Know” and “PSA” were met with at least as much raucous applause as “Money Ain’t a Thang,” “Who You Wit'” and “Nigga What, Nigga Who.”