Once upon a time, I almost shared sweat with Jay Z at the best concert ever. It was 2006 — I had just fallen off the blueberry truck from Kalamazoo, Michigan — and I tried to score a ticket to the rapper’s Reasonable Doubt anniversary show at Radio City Music Hall. It sold out. I wasn’t in “the industry” back then, so the notion of contacting a publicist or record-label flack was out of the question. By some stroke of luck, Jay announced an intimate dress rehearsal for the night before at Best Buy Theater (then the Nokia Theater) and tickets were available. I waited in line for hours and eventually elbowed my way to the front row to see one of my favorites in the flesh. I was heady. In the middle of the set, my “little girl in the big city” moment crystallized when Jay nonchalantly tossed his perspiration-soaked towel into the crowd — directly to me. Everything moved in slow motion. I reached for the Shroud of Hov, but before I could get a firm grasp, some teenage punk snatched away the holy terrycloth. I still think about that show (and what I would do if I ever see that punk in a dark alley) and the pure, unadulterated experience of watching Jay Z for the first time.
By now, Jay Z has become a ubiquitous name on my calendar. I’ve seen the rapper at least 25 times; with shows at Madison Square Garden, Barclays Center, Yankee Stadium, Carnegie Hall, and Central Park, so have most of you. The thrill isn’t gone, per se, but it’s different. Jay Z is a consistent performer with a tried-and-true setlist. You can always count on him to deliver a repertoire of staples. “Empire State of Mind”? He’ll definitely perform that. “Big Pimpin’ ”? You bet.
Jay Z flipped the script with his special B Sides show at Terminal 5 this weekend. The two-night engagement was part of the rapper’s campaign to bolster his streaming music service, Tidal, and to thank its subscribers. Last night, Tidal enthusiasts joined Beyoncé, NBA players Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, and a handful of industry types in the packed house. Reverting to his previous stage name of Jaÿ-Z (I wouldn’t be mad if the diaeresis makes a permanent return), the rapper performed a nearly two-hour set from his prolific vault, starting with the brilliant “Intro” from The Dynasty: Roc La Familia. There was no shortage of tracks, sourcing from a discography of fifteen studio albums, to perform with a nine-piece band that included longtime producer Just Blaze and engineer Young Guru. It was a show for the hardcore Jay Z heads, from fan favorites like “Can I Live,” “Feelin’ It,” and “22 Two’s” to deeper cuts like 1995’s “In My Lifetime,” “D’Evils,” and “Allure.” If you never bought Reasonable Doubt, get the hell up outta here!
“I haven’t really done this shit in like ten years,” Jay admitted, wearing wheat-colored Timberlands and a shiny Roc-A-Fella Records chain. Incidentally, that landmark album has been removed from Spotify (but is available on Tidal).
On the next page: “You bought nine iPhones and Steve Jobs is rich/Phil Knight worth trillions, you still bought those kicks/Spotify’s nine billion and they ain’t say shit”
Jay did stray, albeit briefly, into more well-known tracks. On the A-side front, he performed the perennial crowd-pleaser “U Don’t Know” (I spotted Beyoncé happily counting along to her husband’s “One million, two million, three million, four” in the V.I.P. section) and “Public Service Announcement,” which he dubbed the new national anthem. One of the show’s highlights was the reunion of Roc-A-Fella artists Beanie Sigel, Freeway, Memphis Bleek, and Young Gunz for a rousing rendition of “What We Do” and “You, Me, Him and Her.” Elusive signee Jay Electronic also made a rare appearance for his “Exhibit C” and the incredible “We Made It (Freestyle).” Still no word on when Jay Elec will release that long-awaited album, but from the crowd’s reaction, it needs to happen yesterday.
There were some unexpectedly poignant moments, including requests for silence for the legendary B.B. King (while “The Thrill Is Gone” played) and Jimi Hendrix. Jay also shouted out Queens rapper Chinx (formerly known as Chinx Drugz), who was tragically shot and killed in the city over the weekend. “I can’t understand how we’re under attack…and we’re killing each other,” Jay said, urging rappers to sever their street ties in order to create a better future. “Rest in peace, Chinx.”
Another message Jay Z wanted to drive home was, of course, about Tidal. After a star-studded launch that included Alicia Keys, Daft Punk, Madonna, and Kanye West, the hi-def streaming service has suffered media and fan scrutiny for being too pricey and favoring established artists. The slogan “Tidal for All” quickly turned into “Tidal for None” on social media. The usually reticent rapper went on a stream-of-consciousness rant against the backlash, but the rhyme is mightier than the tweet. Both nights, Jay Z addressed his haters — including competitors like Spotify and Apple — in a freestyle that may make you reconsider shelling out $9.99 per month.
“Pharrell even told me, ‘Go with the best bet’/Jimmy Iovine offered the safety net/Google came around with a crazy check/I feel like YouTube is the culp-a-rit/Niggas pay you a tenth of what you supposed to get/You know niggas die for equal pay, right?” Jay rapped. “You know what I’m worth/I ain’t your slave, right?/You know I ain’t shucking and jivin’ and high-fivin’/You know this ain’t back in the days, right?/But I can’t tell by the way they kill Freddie Gray, right/Shot down/Mike Brown/Like the way they did Tray, right?…I ain’t your token nigga/You know I came in this game independent, right?/Tidal/My own label/Same difference/Oh niggas is skeptical of they own shit/You bought nine iPhones and Steve Jobs is rich/Phil Knight worth trillions you still bought those kicks/Spotify’s nine billion and they ain’t say shit.”
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