The fame hurts, but Jay Z works

by Ryan Snyder

Follow Ryan on Twitter @YESRyan

His bottom line would surely beg to differ, but Jay Z really didn’t really have that great of a year in 2013. The tepid response to Magna Carta Holy Grail — his 12th No. 1 record, but also a status safeguarded by an irreproducible (and highly cynical) app deal with Samsung that ensured a million units sold before the album ever dropped — was just one of a litany of high-profile miscalculations for the man atop the hip-hop pyramid. He caught some partisan heat over his trip with to Cuba with Beyonc’, but was rightfully lambasted for his partnership with Barney’s, a retailer embroiled in a racial profiling scandal. Then there was his Made In America Festival, whose heavy-handed security practices were sharply and publicly criticized by Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age.

Since then, however, Jay Z and Homme have made amends, the whole of the Barney’s profits have been committed to charity, and MCHGjust scored Jigga Man nine nominations at the 2014 Grammys, more than anyone this year. All this was amidst keeping up the husbandly duties that inspired Beyonc’’s amazing surprise album. Ahem. But did Jay Z’s public approval ratings survive 2013 intact after what felt like an interminable string of bad headlines? Attendance at his Greensboro stop on the “Magna Carta World Tour” on Sunday night would contend that it didn’t.

Almost four years ago, Jay Z’s late February headlining stop at the Greensboro Coliseum in support of The Blueprint 3 drew nearly 16,000 to become one of the venue’s most attended shows of that year. Just over a year and a half later, the third date of his seismic collaboration with Kanye West, Watch the Throne, came in only slightly below that figure — and that was on a Tuesday night. Sunday night’s “Magna Carta World Tour” show? Just 7,000. Whether is was the allure of playoff football, the threat of the polar vortex, or just a function of an album that few genuinely cared about and the cache of negativity in its proxy, it was an incredibly uncharacteristic crowd for the biggest hip-hop artist to ever live. Jay Z’s performance, however, wasn’t.

If there’s been any constancy to Jay Z’s tours since The Blueprint 3, it’s that he’s been more than willing to share the stage with music royalty. Beyond the Throne collaboration, he’s toured with Justin Timberlake and Eminem, supported U2, and even enlisted Trey Songz to open (along with a surprise appearance by a newly-inked Roc Nation artist, J. Cole) on his last solo tour stop in Greensboro. Sunday night, Jay Z emerged from within a minimalist, but isometrically elegant stage with stark lighting to the menacing trap rattle of Just Blaze’s “Higher.” It was the aesthetic opposite of the ministerial march of “Run This Town” to which he entered in 2010, but there’s little about this tour that bears resemblance to recent runs.

There was no Memphis Bleek to hype the room, no surprise guest appearances like Rick Ross’s spot in Miami a few days before, and Jay Z has never needed the budget-busting backup cast to crowd the stage that Beyonc’ employs. There was only his band hovering on risers above him — keys, guitar, the prodigious Tony Royster Jr. on drums, and Timbaland, the man who single-handedly carved out the producer’s feature credit, on synths, turntable and drum machine. If anything, his skeletal aesthetic intended to place more of the burden on the 44-year-old icon, a firm declaration that, while rappers of his generation are more likely to show up as a part of a barnstorming ensemble tour than atop Grammy lists, Jay Z is not only still playing the young man’s game, he’s still refining the blueprint.

The show, of course, focused heavily on the MCHG and its well-manicured, of-themoment beats, most of which translated favorably to live instrumentation — “Heaven” was still a choppy mess, even in its abbreviated form, but a master of cadence, self-contained rhythmic force with the uncanny knack for bending pre-programmed beats to his will, Jay Z was still all over it. He’s also arguably hip-hop’s first at-once nostalgic and voguish artist, his set list encompassing 20 years of hustle, each selection evocative of the beats of their era and each beat conducted by a man who was a prevailing creative influence in each of those eras. Consider Bruce Springsteen, his closest artistic approximation at the highest echelons of rock, and the same temporalities would apply to almost all of his live presentation, whether he pulls from Born to Run or Devils & Dust. Jay Z, on the other hand, sandwiched MGHC’s “Somewhereinamerica” between “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” and “N**** What, N**** Who” and suddenly you were bouncing between the time you heard Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album for the first time, Jaz-O shoutouts, and visions of Miley twerking.

Even the brief time with Jay in absentia was a traversal of the hip-hop subconscious. He left the room in the hands Timbaland while he ducked backstage for a breather — shabby and sweaty, defying Shock G’s characterization in How to Rap — who fully flexed the industrial production station at his disposal. He beatboxed, banged out restless thumps on his drum machine while the rest of the band improv’d the accents, and spun a handful of the classic R&B and rap joints that bear his imprint.

Jay Z reemerged almost as soon as the languid crowd seemed to settle into the groove of Ginuwine and Missy Elliott instrumentals, but it was also the perfect placeholder for a second half that drew almost exclusively from his best material. That includes his lengthy encore, in which Jay held true to his tradition of taking a moment to really survey his crowd — he tossed out birthday wishes, ragged on a couple of khaki- and collared-shirt-wearing fans, corrected one fan’s shirt which claimed Brooklyn as the 516, and made the day of one 12-year-old from Maryland who went to a second consecutive show on the slim hopes of being able to rap for his idol. Jay Z handed a mic to the kid, who immediately rebuffed the offer of music to aid him. One pensive stare and deep breath later, and the kid dropped a nearflawless couple of verses from “Clique,” earning him a mammoth hug from Jay Z and a backstage invite.

It was an auspicious start to 2014, and certainly genuine. He might have eaten a fine from the fire marshals, whom he said warned him not to invite fans into the aisles to dance (“What’s fifty grand to a motha f**** like me?,” he asked, prefacing the Throne hit “N***** in Paris.” No doubt the negative headlines will still come (TMZ has already validated the young man wasn’t a plant); he’s under the microscope simply for the fact of who he is: a rapper at the place all rappers want to be, perpetually operating in virgin territory. To last in the wild demands survival instincts, and in Jay’s case, the willingness to be the bad guy sometimes, even when he’s usually pretty good. !