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Jay-Z and Madison Square Garden have a little history between them. In 2003, on the occasion of his retirement, Jay-Z recorded his MSG farewell concert on 35MM film. That footage became Fade To Black, the single best concert film of the decade. In 2009, on the occasion of the eight year anniversary of the single worst atrocity committed against America (and Jay-Z’s sixth album, The Blueprint), the Fuse network aired the concert live. So… what’s that saying about diminishing returns?
Last night’s Answer The Call show was no Fade To Black moment. There was less on the line. But all proceeds from the sold-out event went to the New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund, and so good cause and all, a casual hiccup could be forgiven. With all tickets at $50 a pop, the charity is looking at something pushing $1 million, a noble haul. But despite the community-driven theme of the show (Governor David Patterson sat all of three rows ahead of me), this was still very much a Jay-Z concert: pristinely designed, predictable but irrefutably fun, with dashes of genuine wonder. Jay-Z likes to think of himself like Frank Sinatra, but he’s more like Tony Bennett. Kinder, more inviting, willing to collaborate with the youth as he slips into middle age. On Friday he welcomed a torrent of guests, and deftly handled the weird intersection of commerce and moroseness that colors any memorial tribute concert. “We’re celebrating life tonight,” he told the audience. Some screamed, others nodded in silence. It’s hard to find grace amidst flashing camera phones.
The biggest moments of the night were chilling: Jay-Z entering — in all black everything — to the strains of “Empire State of Mind,” the most immediate song on his new album, The Blueprint 3; John Mayer bizarrely stealing the show with a brief but furious medley of Hov’s hits, fuckface fully intact; Beyonce being Beyonce for four minutes; Rihanna upstaging Beyonce with her now-blinding star power, stronger and meaner now since she got punched by Chris Brown; Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Rihanna huddled together for “Run This Town,” a sort of fantasy baseball flash of unified fame. This was an event concert, ripe with stars too young and too old: Kid Cudi, Santigold, Mary J. Blige, Diddy, Pharrell Williams, Swizz Beatz, and so on. (No Drake, he’s still recovering.) Each were game, but only a handful seemed to understand the moment. Kanye, in particular, was maniacally animated during his post-bourgeois verse from “Run This Town,” perhaps the moment when he officially surpassed Jay as the most intriguing rap superstar working today; this year Kanye verses have become events unto themselves.
Jay-Z seemed most excited when performing new songs from BP3, which has been taking its lumps from serious fans since it leaked last week. Jigga has also caught flak for some perplexing statements during his suffocating press run the last two weeks. Curious comments about Grizzly Bear and “the indie rock movement,” and his strange promise to make his BP3 follow-up the most experimental album of his career seemed to miss the point completely. The best parts of BP3 are experimental enough. “Already Home,” with a mewling but appealing Kid Cudi guest hook, features a blizzard of new flows and a recognizable bluster. Live, it felt like an old classic. And the deep, dank, bottomless Swizz Beatz production, “On To The Next One,” is one of the most off-kilter songs in his entire catalogue. As the third verse began to bore the audience, Jay and Swizz remained giddy onstage. The execrable “Venus vs. Mars” was a rare misstep; too quiet and too obvious.
The mainstays slayed as they so often do. It’s almost impossible to write with any critical acumen about songs like “99 Problems,” “Hard Knock Life,” and “Big Pimpin.'” They are ingrained in the strands of our cultural DNA by now. They rocked.
There were mistakes. As “Young Forever,” the deeply regrettable Alphaville-sampling, Mr. Hudson-featuring BP3 closer played, a mosaic of the faces of 9/11 victims streamed up the jumbotron. It was meant to pay tribute; instead it felt cruelly calculated. (That Bono and Chris Martin failed to appear was shocking; they are to this crap what Jay once was to trips across state lines.) Things perked up when Diddy (too excited, as always), Kanye, and perennially pitiable protege-turned-hypeman Memphis Bleek joined Jay-Z for “Encore.” They smiled and laughed and suddenly it wasn’t a memorial at all — it was a homecoming.