Last night, Jay-Z brought Brooklyn to Canada, killing the stage with a veteran's poise.
I was seven years old when Reasonable Doubt dropped, so the impact was lost on a young mind too enthralled in Darkwing Duck to care about an emerging Brooklyn emcee. It was only later, when Jay reclaimed September 11th, 2001 by dropping Blueprint (arguably one of the defining hip-hop albums of our generation) that I fully began to realize the genius of Jay-Z. And while Blueprint is one of Jay’s undeniable classics, I have no doubt that many fans can attest to experiencing a similar epiphany, brought on by one of his myriad albums.
In my time working here, I have seen a wide array of opinion on Jay’s discography; some value the lo-fi New York aesthetic of Reasonable Doubt, whereas others prefer the futuristic soundscapes of The Blueprint 3. It’s a testament to not only the scope of his catalog, which encompasses twelve studio albums and several collaborations, but of his unparalleled artistic versatility. It’s easy to forget that Jay has been around for decades, and has never failed to integrate himself into the current musical zeitgeist. Simply put, the man has hits. And last night, for the first time in my long history as a Jay-Z fan, I was able to witness a master of his craft in action.
It's kind of uncommon for rappers to actually include Montreal on their tours (at least those who aren't banned from Canada entirely), and the Bell Center is reserved for only the biggest acts. Jay had come to my home city of Montreal a couple of times, but the timing never worked out. After missing out on his Watch The Throne tour (an opportunity I lament to this day), I worried that Jay might hang it before ever returning to the North. And if he did, he would be on the tail end of his veteran career; would he still have the hunger to perform? My doubts were alleviated the second I heard the opening notes of “Kill Jay-Z,” an appropriate opener to both album and show. Standing alone in the middle of the arena, Jay moved across the stage with experienced gravitas, without the crutch of a backing track, an entourage, or any fancy stage props. Despite reports that the 4:44 tour was struggling, the venue looked packed for the most part, with plenty of fans both older and younger.
His live band (and the oft-shouted out Guru behind the ones and twos) brought an appreciated energy to the set, particularly the pair of drummers. In my experience, live bands can be hit or miss at rap shows, but Jay’s musicians were subtle, pushing only when appropriate. Stadium friendly songs like “U Don’t Know,” or “N***as In Paris” benefitted from the added intensity of thrashing drums, while “Big Pimpin’” and “Jigga My N****a” gained even more bounce from the additional percussion. While “The Story Of OJ” lacked some of the potency found on the album version, there was a cool moment in which Jay and his bassist grooved out together, giving the opening of the instrumental some breathing room. It was cool to see Jay-Z in his element, vibing to the simple power of a dope bassline; the man has done so much for music, and it’s nice to see him so comfortable in a world he helped shape.
As for the setlist, Jay’s ninety minute performance featured hits from across the span of his career. The majority of the focus was on 4:44, including an intimate rendition of the title track, which Jay called “the most uncomfortable song he ever wrote.” Unfortunately, my personal favorite 4:44 track “Smile” was given a stripped down arrangement, which cut this standout third verse entirely. Other than that, Jay’s 4:44 material fared reasonably well, yet the nuance of the lyricism was occasionally lost in the loud-ass Bell Center mix. “Bam,” “Family Feud,” and “Moonlight” were performed in their entirety, as was “The Story Of OJ,” “Kill Jay-Z,” and “4:44.”
For an artist as prolific as Jay, these concerts often serve as a condensed “greatest hits.” While 4:44 was ultimately the focal project, Hov brought out a solid mix of classics, representing many (with a few notable omissions, chiefly American Gangster) of his older albums. Blueprint got “Heart Of The City” and “Izzo,” The Black Album got “Dirt Off Ya Shoulder,” “Lucifer,” and “Allure,” Vol. 2 got “Hard Knock Life," and Ruff Ryders' Ryde Or Die Vol 1. cut "Jigga My N***a" got a play. Even Magna Carter got a few moments to shine, including “Beach Is Better” and “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt,” which found Jay and the entire audience belting out the iconic closing lines - “Bad bitch, she a masterpiece!” Shout out to Rozay.
There was bizarre moment during “N***as In Paris” in which one scraggly haired individual managed to make his way onto the stage. At first, Jay vibed with him, but the intruder soon began looking increasingly lost. He followed Jay around rather aimlessly before security managed to corral him and lead him off stage. Suffice it to say, Jay handled the situation with more composure than someone like Action Bronson, who would have no doubt ended that with a quick vertical suplex. Yet Jay-Z is a professional, and he’s not about to let some of that nonsense shake him. And while he did perform his Kanye-shading “Kill Jay-Z,” there was a moment in which a close-up of a laughing Ye filled the video screen, prompting massive cheers from the crowd. Here’s hoping The Throne can settle their differences and get back to making music, for the good of humanity.
I’d like to once again shout out the fact that Jay went without a backing track. In 2017, it’s becoming increasingly commonplace for a rapper to perform with their song playing in the background, but Jay-Z went the entire ninety minutes without missing a step. Plus, his banter and energy were on point, and he kept the evening entertaining throughout, preaching a message of love and positivity. If I had one minor nitpick, it was that the massive screens surrounding him were pretty clunky at times; every once in awhile they would slowly descend, obstructing Jay from view.
On that note, he concluded the concert with an homage to his late friend and collaborator Chester Bennington, who passed away earlier this year. For better or worse, the Linkin Park hybrid has come to replace Kanye West’s original Black Album cut as the default version, but for all intents and purposes, the gesture made for a powerful moment. As Jay walked off stage, dapping up fans on his way to the dressing room, it reminded me of an athlete leaving the field after a star performance. And even though Jay-Z is pushing fifty, he managed to hold it down with more energy and skill than some of these rappers in their twenties. A true legend was in the building, and if we’re lucky, Jay-Z’s influence will continue to be felt for generations to come.