I hate to do it just as bad as you hate to see it done.
Radio City Music Hall
June 25, 2006
History is written by the winners. Reasonable Doubt is a truly great debut album, but so is Doggystyle, and Snoop Dogg did exactly nothing to commemorate the tenth anniversary of its release. Illmatic is an absolute masterpiece, and I can’t imagine any situation in which Nas would get a chance to perform it with an orchestra behind him. The difference is that Jay-Z is a rare case: a rapper who made a great debut and then went on to live up to the potential it showed, both artistically and commercially, to the point where his success story has grown to absurd levels and he can hang out with Bill Clinton and Prince Charles and Bill Gates and shit, to the point where he’s modern royalty. In fact, Jay has grown to become such a massive public figure that Reasonable Doubt doesn’t really have all that much to do with what he is today, except that he still considers it his finest artistic achievement and brings it up in every interview. So he gets to have his own special night at Radio City to celebrate its anniversary, but it’s not really because of the album’s greatness; it’s because he does whatever he feels like and he felt like doing it. Still, it is a great album, and its stately elegance works perfectly with what Jay did at tonight’s show. Illmatic might be the better album, but “Halftime” would sound ridiculous if an orchestra played it. “Can I Live” doesn’t.
Jay announced the show about three weeks ago, but I’m pretty sure he’d been planning it for a lot longer. Everything about the show was truly opulent and meticulously planned out. The venue itself had a lot to do with the big-event air; it’s nowhere near the size as his usual stomping grounds, but Radio City Music Hall looks simply breathtaking, to the point where I felt weird and out of place even being there, to the point where I was almost relieved to see a roach in the urinal before the show started. But then, the Roots played two shows there last month, and the one I saw was just OK, virtuosic as always but also messy and thrown-together and disapponting considering all the hype that went into it. And Radio City is famous for its sound, but the mix at the Roots show was muddy and indistict enough for me to be a bit nervous when ?uestlove was announced as the musical director for the show.
I shouldn’t have worried. Jay is better at making entrances than any performer I’ve ever seen, and his introduction at this one may have even trumped the fake Oval Office and the forty-foot jets of flame from the I Declare War show last year. The show started with a not-brief-enough DJ set from Funkmaster Flex, who played a few seconds of about a million songs for maximum adrenaline effect, but that was really just to let people know they should find their seats. When the curtain came up, we were looking at a huge orchestra: nine horns, about thirty strings, a grand piano, ?uestlove, Just Blaze, a hot female conductor, a fucking harp. I tried to count the musicians onstage at one point, and it was around fifty. Jay came to the stage in a 96 Lexus. The whole orchestra wore matching blak tuxedos, but Jay wore a white one, and that is what we call attention to detail.
Jay had said that he’d be doing Reasonable Doubt in its entirety, but he hadn’t said that he’d do them in order. He ended up coming up with a better idea: doing the songs in reverse, starting with “Regrets” and ending with “Can’t Knock the Hustle.” And it worked perfectly, keeping the album’s sense of arc but building up to an honest-to-God climax. Before the show, it was fun to speculate on how he’d put everything together: Would Al Pacino show up to do the Carlito’s Way skits? Who would do Biggie’s part on “Brooklyn’s Finest,” Guerilla Black? But one of the few real questions was whether Jay-Z’s mentors-turned-foes Jaz-O and Sauce Money would show up to do their verses on “Bring It On.” Sauce Money showed up, not really a surprise considering he’d been at the I Declare War show. Jaz-O didn’t, but it didn’t much matter. Memphis Bleek strained the night’s sartorial uniformity a bit by showing up wearing a goddam baseball cap with his black suit, but he made up for it by doing “Coming of Age” almost as musical theatre, he and Jay facing each other at a forty-five degree angle and subtly acting out the lyrics. Foxy Brown, back from hearing-restoration surgery, ran out dressed like a gangster’s moll to do her verse from “Ain’t No Nigga,” and it was pretty great to see her again, even if she didn’t sound that great. “Obviously, the surgery was a success,” Jay said afterwards, but it wasn’t completely obvious, though it’s likely that she was just amped to be out in front of a crowd for the first time in a minute. Even if she’s not yet back on her A-game, you have to admire her courage in coming out like that. The big surprise, though, was Beyonce, who sang “Can’t Knock the Hustle” instead of Mary J. Blige and just murdered it, sounding even better than Mary. The Reasonable Doubt set ended with that song, and it was an ending worth building up to.
But even so, the guests weren’t really all that important to the success of the show. Musically, Reasonable Doubt is a lush and restrained piece of work, and the orchestra sounded amazing playing this stuff, building the swells of the songs without cluttering up the beats too much. Occassionally, it would edge into Vegas territory (the pizzicato string plucks on “Cashmere Thoughts,” the too-wobbly bass on “Ain’t No Nigga”), but more often, they nailed their parts. The horn-stabs on “Can I Live” were some straight-up James Bond shit, and the extended big-band jazz-vamping at the end of “Feelin’ It” made perfect sense. When the beat of “D’Evils” switched to “Murder Was the Case” on the last verse, it somehow became even more epic. More importantly, the orchestra (Jay kept calling them the “Hustler Symphony Orchestra”) wasn’t there as stunt casting. It wasn’t like the violin players would just hit a couple of notes every song and let the DJ do the rest of the work; every instrument was fully integrated into the show. Even the harp.
And Jay himself was magnificent. He barely talked between songs, just moving from one track to another fluidly. The night before, he’d done a warm-up show at the Nokia Theatre to iron out any kinks. I’d intentionally avoided reading any accounts of the show, but I’d been told it was alternately great and, um, not-great. But he never once fucked up or forgot his lyrics tonight. He’s a born showman, of course, Clintonian in his effortless charisma and fully capable of holding down a stage without ever depending on a hypeman. “Brooklyn’s Finest” made for an awkward situation, since there’s no real way to do a smooth and flawless live version of a song when that song is a back-and-forth tag team with a dead rapper. But Jay did it with a minumum of fuss, doing both his own parts and Biggie’s while footage of Biggie played on the screen behind him and ending everything with an old Biggie verse. The best part of the show, though, came after Jay did the first verse of “22 Two’s.” Instead of doing song’s second verse, he had the orchestra stop playing, and he debuted a new one: “44 Four’s,” a total jaw-dropping feat, the screen behind him counting up every “four.” If Jay is still writing verses like this, we’ve got even more reason to hope this fake-ass retirement doesn’t go on too long.
So the Reasonable Doubt part of the show was truly dazzling, and it seemed a bit anticlimactic when he came back to the stage in street clothes a few minutes after “Can’t Knock the Hustle” ended. His second set was about a half-hour, almost all of it after Radio City’s 11:00 curfew. He had Memphis Bleek in tow and Just Blaze DJing, and he did the same set he’ll probably do in Poland or Ghana or wherever else he’s going on this world tour he just announced. After the Reasonable Doubt stuff, it was funny hearing Jay do some of his most crass and popular tracks: “Money Ain’t a Thing,” “Jigga My Nigga,” “I Just Wanna Love U.” He even did a few seconds of “Excuse Me Miss,” and I don’t know anyone who likes that song. But Jay-Z on autopilot is better than virtually every other rapper giving their best. And this second set included maybe the fucking amazing one-two punch “P.S.A.” seguing directly into “U Don’t Know” while slow-mo footage of Kurt Cobain trashing the stage at the 1992 VMAs played on the screens. That was a total goosebump moment, but Jay seems to come up with stuff like that in his sleep. When Jay finally decides to stop figuring out how to market Tru Life and goes back to being a full-time rapper, the world will be a better place.
There were cameras all over the venue, and apparently they’re going to release a DVD of the show. You should maybe buy it.
Voice feature: Elizabeth Mendez Berry on Jay-Z