The former is, of course, met with deafening applause, wild cheering and a palpable sense of excitement, as is the latter. But the icon is greeted with something more, this sort of split-second pause, wherein that uncontainable anticipation is temporarily supplanted with an awestruck, almost audible gasp of, “Oh my god. He is real.”
That’s how legendary Brooklyn emcee Jay Z was greeted at Wednesday night’s performance at Chesapeake Energy Arena as part of his Magna Carter World Tour, and he spent the better part of two hours showing exactly how and why his icon status was earned.
Jay Z is almost quite literally on top of the world. He’s an immovable object whose even admittedly middling works ― he placed his 2013 release Magna Carta Holy Grail smack dab in the middle of a recent self-ranking of his own discography ― cower over his contemporaries.
He’s so cemented into his reign that he can stand comfortable, proud and not the least bit jealous as his wife (the one and only Beyoncé) can bring the world to standstill with a surprise album or take it upon himself to mentor and collaborate with hip-hop’s most tortured (and maybe talented) soul, Kanye West, with little worry, even if Yeezus represents the only real threat to his throne.
Ever the mogul, Hova has moved into sports management ― the Thunder’s own Kevin Durant standing as his splashiest signing so far ― in an approach that is as dedicated to empire-building as helping ink fat team contracts and endorsement deals, while also dabbling in brand directing, fashion, performance art and just about everything else.
But if there was any doubt as to whether the love for music ranked chief among his many varied interests, that can be laid to rest with the Cheshire Cat grin that lay smacked across his face for the full performance, while playing hits from the past and present and promising plenty more in the future.
After an hour-long DJ set warmed up the crowd with everything from Jock Jams to DMX, Jay Z took to the stage down a runway to “Higher,” erupting into the first half of his set ― featuring mostly cuts from Magna Carta ― to that aforementioned mix of elation and shock.
The set was economical but sleek, a clean mix of lit walkways and metal cage platforms that housed his backing band, including famed beatmaker Timbaland. It was a dark Gotham-urban-towers-meets-warehouse fashion show, anchored by two video screens that routinely alternated between a (purposefully) glitchy live feed overlaid with paranoid, censored imagery and sinister art house scenes a la Se7en or Nine Inch Nails, all of which felt tailored to his latest studio album.
Album highlights “Crown,” “Holy Grail,” “F*ckwithmeyouknowigotit,” and “Beach Is Better” were sandwiched around “U Don’t Know” (2001’s The Blueprint) and “On to the Next One” (2009’s The Blueprint 3), all of which saw Jay Z cut tracks mid-song just to soak in the unrelentingly loud applause, only to relaunch in perfect rhythm.
“I think we can hit another level,” the emcee chided, acting as his own hype man leading into the party starting “99 Problems” that saw a rap-along thousands strong.
Jay Z carried that momentum through “Picasso Baby,” “Dead Presidents II,” “Pound Cake” (from Drake’s Nothing Was the Same) and “No Church in the Wild” (from 2011’s West collaboration Watch the Throne) before first half highlight “Tom Ford,” which used the cavernous arena to its advantage, the digital warbles and sparse percussion given lots of room to breathe in the ’Peake.
Hova walked off the stage and allowed Timbaland to showcase his striking production prowess, doing live mixes of and beatboxing to some of his signature creations from the past two decades, including those for Missy Elliott and Justin Timberlake.
Jay soon returned with “Somewhereinamerica,” and then came the hit parade, a cascade of ubiquitous smash singles in “Big Pimpin’,” “Nigga What, Nigga Who,” “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)” and “Niggas in Paris,” inviting fans to fill the previously neatly defined aisles on the floor and jokingly inviting security to stand down in the midst of it all.
He swept the house and stage lights off with a definitive arm gesture before reminding the crowd, “I told you I got a hundred of these” in total darkness. Soon, the opening notes of “Public Service Announcement (Interlude)” shook through the arena, closing out the opening set with “Clique” and “Run This Town.”
After a short break, Hova returned on stage with the most fitting of choices: “Encore.” An introduction of his band led into “Empire State of Mind,” soon giving way “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” before closing for good with “Young Forever” in tribute to the recent passing of Nelson Mandela.
The show operated much like Jay Z himself does: it was a simple and straightforward show with no surprise guests, overbearing live production or pyrotechnics to stand in the way of the best moments, which were often just two spotlights on the famed rapper as he would finish off some of the selections a cappella.
I guess a voice, a microphone and a light is all you really need to amaze when you’re a true icon.