November 11, 2007
Last night at Hammerstein, Lil Wayne wanted to clear something up. “Best rapper alive,” he said, pointing at Jay-Z. Then, pointing at himself: “Next rapper alive.” So maybe that’s a direct contradiction of everything Wayne’s said on the billions of mixtapes he’s released in the last couple of years. And maybe it’s a bit weird considering that Wayne didn’t rap a single word onstage; instead, he showed up during “Hello Brooklyn 2.0” to do his weird singsongy verse and then seized his brief spotlight moment to wail out the chorus to “Duffle Bag Boy,” leading a huge, cathartic mass singalong like this was a Fugazi show or something. But it was still a powerful moment of conciliation, these two guys signaling that they’re going to stop tossing darts back and forth at each other, at least for now. Jay loves to use New York shows to make big cultural statements like that one. Granted, this wasn’t anything like Jay bringing Nas onstage in New Jersey a couple of years ago. But even if the Jay/Wayne conflict never became public, even if Wayne showed up on American Gangster, I didn’t see this thing coming: these two guys onstage together, both looking truly happy to share space. Wayne’s appearance was one of last night’s two big headline-grab moments. The other one, Jadakiss’s big Roc-A-Fella debut, didn’t come off nearly as well; Jada and Green Lantern managed to bungle it completely. During “Roc Boys,” the last song of the evening, most of Jay’s Roc-A-Fella guys walked onstage, Jada quietly joining them. A verse in, Jay stopped the song to announce Jada as the newest member of the crew. But when Green Lantern threw on the “All About the Benjamins” instrumental, Jada wasn’t having it. “That’s Puff’s shit,” he said. “Put on one of my joints.” What followed was an excruciating, endless pause, Green frantically checking his laptop to see if he had any Jadakiss tracks. Finally, he found one: “The Champ is Here.” Jada: “Man, I don’t know that song. Why you gotta put me on the spot like that? They don’t want that.” (I wanted that, but whatever.) After another excruciating pause, after Beanie Sigel actually went behind the DJ tables to help Green Lantern find another Jadakiss track, someone finally decided fuck it and put “Roc Boys” back on. Jada looked miserable.
So: two big moments, only one of which actually came off right. Two non-Roc guests: Wayne and Diddy, who came out for his verse on the “I Get Money” remix. (No 50.) One nostalgic Roc-A-Fella crew-love segment. (Young Chris: still alive! Young Neef: maybe not!) One big announcement: the Jada thing, which just about everyone already knew. No Kanye, for obvious reasons. (Jay dedicated the show to him.) By Jay’s hometown-show standards, that’s practically a coffeehouse open-mic night performance. Jay’s been talking up American Gangster as his art-rap album, despite the major movie tie-in and the buckets of money evident on virtually every second of every track. On his quick weeklong tour, he’s been playing clubs rather than arenas; for him, that’s the equivalent of a Springsteen acoustic tour or something. In New York, Jay could probably fill up Shea Stadium without too much trouble, but he instead opted for Hammerstein, probably not the best possible choice. Hammerstein’s dinky soundsystem doesn’t even come close to doing Jay’s beats justice, and its harried security detail kept most of the ticket-holding crowd waiting for upwards of an hour on a line that wrapped around the block while ignoring the fights breaking out inside. I’d worried that the show would be dominated by industry-types, but it didn’t look that way inside. Instead, the people who made it out to this show were Jay’s faithful, the fans with the energy and inclination to hit the refresh button on the Ticketmaster website over and over the minute tickets went on sale. But even when he’s working his art-album in front of a crowd of diehards, Jay is a born populist, and so last night’s show, like most Jay shows, ended up as a two-hour greatest-hits marathon. And a two-hour Jay-Z greatest-hits marathon in a smallish, jammed-full room is about the best thing you can do with a Sunday night.
After a near-endless Funkmaster Flex DJ set, the show proper started with Jay’s fifty-foot shadow projected on a screen-curtain, and just about everything between that curtain going up and Jay leaving the stage after “Roc Boys” melts into an ecstatic blur when I try to remember it. Jay had a 13-piece band with him, the same one that he’d had at the VH1 Storytellers taping. On the newer, lusher tracks, the band had some opportunity to make its presence known; let it be known that multiple drum-solos don’t really improve “Show Me What You Got.” But on the older songs, the members of the band were mostly just well-dressed props, and it’s to Jay’s credit that he didn’t try to rework “Jigga What Jigga Who” or “PSA” to make room for his horn section. I’ve basically seen this show before, and I’ll probably see it again, but I can’t really imagine a time when I’ll get tired of it. Jay’s iconic status has only sharped his showman’s instincts, and he knows how to make every tiny gesture work for him. And he’s got an absurdly deep catalog, one that allows him to find hidden segways and slide from one anthem to another with slippery ease. After the “fuck Bush” line on “Blue Magic,” his guitarist played a Hendrixian “Star-Spangled Banner” and then launched directly into “99 Problems,” which in turn led right into “U Don’t Know.” And the weird thing is that the whole night felt like that sequence: hardly any downtime, just a head-spinning succession of bangers, artfully arranged to maximize impact and minimize down-time. Part of Jay’s genius is that he’ll never pull a Lauryn Hill Unplugged move; he’s impervious to self-destruction. At least when he’s onstage, he knows exactly what his audience wants, and he couldn’t hold back from giving it to them even if he wanted to. As much as I love Lil Wayne, I’m not sure he’ll ever be able to do a show like the one Jay did last night.
Voice review: Amy Linden on Jay-Z’s American Gangster
Voice review: Miles Marshall Lewis on Jay-Z’s Kingdom Come
Voice feature: Elizabeth Mendez Berry on Jay-Z
Voice review: Nick Catucci on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse
Voice review: Selwyn Seyfu Hinds on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint
Voice review: Kelefa Sanneh on Jay-Z’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia
Voice review: Miles Marshall Lewis on Jay-Z’s Vol. 3 … The Life and Times of S. Carter
Voice review: James Hunter on Jay-Z’s Vol. 2 … Hard Knock Life