So this happened.
Continental Airlines Arena
October 27, 2005
Jay-Z didn’t dis anyone tonight, not 50 Cent or Cam’ron or Game. I feel a little ridiculous saying this after all the time I’ve spent publically wondering who Jay’s target would be, and Jay’s big surprise, Nas, wasn’t a surprise, at least not if you’ve been obsessively combing the internet dorking out over clues the way I have. But please believe me when I say that I am not the slightest bit disappointed; no one I heard leaving the Continental Airlines Arena was either. Even if you thought you knew it was coming, it was still a dumb-out moment: Jay stopping “Where I’m From” at the “Biggie, Jay-Z or Nas” part, falling silent for a minute, telling the crowd that the concert was called “I Declare War” but decided that it was bigger than that. And then: “You know what I did for y’all? You know what I did for hip-hop? I said fuck that shit! Let’s go, Esco!” Nas rising behind Jay on an elevator at the top of a staircase, doing the hook on “Dead Presidents.” And then the two of them standing side by side at the center of the stage, arms behind them, Nas wearing army greens and Tims, hat off to the side of his head, Jay wearing expensive-looking sunglasses and a black tracksuit, soaking in the moment.
The Nas introduction came at the end of the show, of course, the climax of a long night. I’d never seen Jay-Z live before, but the show’s format was familiar from Fade to Black: Jay does a few songs, introduces a guest who does a few songs and then maybe brings out his own guest, Jay comes back, does a few songs, introduces someone else. Jay’s song choices were sometimes confusing (“Hola Hovito” over “Big Pimpin'”?), but he was still totally comfortable in his skin, doing songs he knew well to a crowd who knew them just as well. The Biggie tribute, especially, seemed ripped straight from Fade to Black. But that’s not to say the show was boring. Onstage, Jay is all quick, easy self-assurance, qualities immediately thrown into relief whenever his guests would overload the stage with hypemen and yell too much. “Song Cry,” in particular, sounded heavenly after a chaotic, cacophanous D-Block set. And it’s not to say the show didn’t have its surprises. Incredibly, the Jay/Nas peace accord was only the second long-standing beef squashed onstage tonight; Diddy did “All About the Benjamins” with former adversaries the Lox. And I jumped out of my seat when Jay brought out Beanie Sigel, a guy I love, a guy who’d seemed to be on the outs with the Roc to the point where he was talking about signing with G-Unit.
And Jay’s guest list was pretty staggering, even without the megaton starpower of Beyonce or Usher or Mary J. Blige. We got all the Roc-A-Fella guys we expected to get: Freeway snarling ferociously, Peedi Crack getting to spit a couple of verses, Bleek just being there. And there were a few other guys we knew would be there: T.I. and Young Jeezy got to do their own short solo sets. Beanie and D-Block and Diddy were more surprising, but the night’s biggest non-Nas guest was Kanye West, who must’ve taken a night off his tour. Kanye’s still-a-kid amped-up energy was a nice contrast to Jay’s seen-it-all cool, and it’s hard to imagine a time when it won’t be fun watching him do his jerking-backward dance on “Gold Digger.” (Bonus points: he didn’t remove the “I was like Bad Boy’s street team, couldn’t work the Lox” line from “Touch the Sky” even after the Lox/Diddy reunion.) A few of the guests even brought their own guests: Jeezy had Akon on “Soul Survivor,” and Kanye had Paul Wall and GLC on “Drive Slow,” though we didn’t get “Mr. Lonely” or “Sittin’ Sidewayz.” There were more guests than time-slots available, apparently; Bun B made a quick appearance onstage at the end of the show, but he didn’t get a chance to rap, though Jay’s last words onstage were “Free Pimp C.” And then there was Nas, who didn’t really wreck shit with his own solo set (mostly Illmatic stuff) but who lent the event an epic scope just by showing up. There was a great moment near the end when Nas stood side by side with Jay, Kanye, and Diddy, like it was rap’s Mount Rushmore or some shit. And an even better moment came a minute later. The stage had been set up to look like the Oval Office, complete with desk, glass doors, presidential seal on the floor, fake Secret Service guys. While Nas did “Made You Look,” Diddy sprawled in Jay’s presidential chair and put his feet up on the desk, while Jay grabbed him by the leg and tried to pull him out. It was funny. Maybe you had to be there.
The show wasn’t perfect. The sound was terrible through most of the night, and a few of the guests had serious mic problems (T.I.’s mic straight-up didn’t work half the time.) The elevator at the back of the stage seemed to be working way too slowly, awkwardly causing Kanye and Nas’s dramatic entrances to happen a few moments late. But the night began with a transcendent moment: Jay sitting behind the desk while the opening to “Public Service Annoucement” played, jets of flame shooting up from the stage when the drums kicked in, one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen onstage. And it ended with another one: Jay doing “Encore,” joined by every rapper to come to the stage that night and Lebron James, everyone looking utterly dazed and happy to be there.
Voice feature: Elizabeth Mendez Berry on Jay-Z