This one’s crazy for you, Jay

by Ryan Snyder

Back in September at the Trinumeral Festival, I engaged in animated discourse with Blackalicious front man Gift of Gab over the merits of Jay-Z’s then No. 1 release The Blueprint 3. I felt, despite some good hooks and production, it was his weakest in years from a lyrical standpoint. I thought it was merely an okay album. Gab, a bluecollar rapper with a devout and widespread fan base, had just finished his early evening solo set, was unwinding with some of the free beer and goodies backstage, and proceeded to tell me that I was grossly ill-informed in his own affable way.

I explained my stance and though we agreed to disagree, I paid particular heed to Gab’s plea to see the Jigga Man live. That chance came Sunday, Feb. 28 at the Greensboro Coliseum and needless to say, Gab was right.

For a man with a nickname that’s an abridged version of Jehovah, Jay-Z sure can back up all of that gravitas. Opener Trey Songz, for all of his efforts to be salaciously libertine (his DJ repeatedly asked “Who f**kin’ tonight” during his hit “I Invented Sex”), paled in comparison to the most trivial of actions committed by Hova onstage. Songz singled out a woman in the crowd to grind his hips toward; big deal. Jay-Z towels off his forehead and passes it to a stagehand; you’d be talking about that the rest of your life if that were you. Suppose that’s the territory of being the most admired figure in the biggest cultural movement of the last 30 years.

That said, consider how swoon-worthy it was seeing Jay-Z arise from the middle of the stage as the overhead clock counted down to zero. His stage lighting was rather subdued compared to other artists of his stature, yet still tastefully arranged with LED columns of varying height ordered to resemble the New York skyline. As striking as the sight of the stage was, the detail of Jay-Z’s 10-piece backing band stood out even more. Backed by a live ensemble composed of guitar, bass, two keyboards, drums, percussion and horns, Jay-Z threw the knockout blow to the old clich’ of hip hop as an inferior musical form because of its overreliance on recorded tracks. Some moments seemed right out of the heyday of Chess Records, particularly the brassy bluster on “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love),” which was accented by a faithful recreation of the original hook by Bobby Blue Bland.

Clad in his archetypal black jeans, T-shirt and vest Jay opened with the anthemic “Run This Town,” as the more than 16,000 in the Coliseum were bursting with enthusiasm. The excitement jumped another level when Jay was joined during “DOA (Death of Auto-Tune)” by long-time sideman Memphis Bleek, who would remain during most of the show, the first of several guest spots throughout the evening.

No matter how many others joined him (it never became too crowded onstage), whether it be Bleek, Trey Songz, backing vocalist Bridget Kelly or Fayetteville rapper and newest Roc-a- Fella signee J. Cole, Jay-Z never seemed like just another guy onstage. He was the guy, at all times. Of course, no one along for the ride could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Bun B cameo that occurred at the Houston show a few nights before, but Jigga’s stage presence is still among the all-time greats.

His set touched every era of his career in almost complete detail, though The Blueprint 3 got a little more lopsided attention than I would have liked; it was the tour’s namesake after all, and it seemed to be during these instances that the set was kicked up a notch. Curvaceous vocalist Kelly sauntered onto stage during “Empire State of Mind” and the magnetic J. Cole recreated his guest spot on “A Star is Born.”

Jay-Z still burned through the hits, and there were a lot of them, packing in around 40 songs into his two-hour set, and that’s not even including the “set break,” hosted by accomplice Young Jeezy. “Young” is certainly not the first descriptor I would apply to the current Jeezy, but his 20 minutes seemed to fill the requirements of “Drums>Space” and lent even more credence to the assertion that Jay-Z is indeed the Grateful Dead of Rap.

Jay-Z returned to form with “Dirt Off Your Shoulders” after Jeezy wrapped up “My President is Black,” but it was his a capella “Some People Hate” that took the set into it’s final act. “Okay, f**k it, we’re going to take it into overtime,” he yelled to deafening response as horns churned out the intro to “Thank You.” If there was anything the show was missing up until that point, it was one of those grating moments where the star crams a dozen songs into one short musical montage. Unfortunately, this was that time and even more so, it included too many great songs that deserved better. It didn’t seem out of the ordinary for him to cut off “La, La, La” at the mention of Beanie Sigel, but “Can I Get A” warranted more than two verses. Set closers “Big Pimpin’,” “Hardknock Life” and “Encore” in their entirety made it forgivable, as did Jay’s warm exaltations of every fan in the building. He left the same way he arrived — arms crossed and head bopping on the platform — but the same surely can’t be said for anyone else there