with Vic Mensa
American Airlines Center, Dallas
Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017
There are some references in pop culture that are so ubiquitous it’s hard to remember where they started. For example, “ball so hard” turned into a Where’s Waldo meme while “I got 99 problems” is used to advertise pet products. If anyone had forgotten that Jay-Z is responsible for those hooks, he reminded them Tuesday night at American Airlines Center, where he took the audience on an hour-and-a-half journey through his discography over the last 20 years.
The audience seemed to enjoy the ride through time, grooving and spitting lyrics with Hova to his most famous anthems since 1998, including “Big Pimpin’” (1999), “Jigga My Nigga” (1999), “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” (2003), “Empire State of Mind” (2009) and “Ni**as in Paris” (2011). The only problem is that to get through 30-plus songs in an evening, Jay-Z had to shorten most of the tracks. One of the most regretful was “The Story of O.J.” from 4:44, which is perhaps the most clever and groove-worthy song on the album.
The setup was perfect for an audience with a short attention span, but for those who wanted to savor Jay-Z's newest release, it felt much like the hors d’oeuvres tray at a party. In short, it was a tease.
There have been many reports of lagging ticket sales since the tour launched two weeks ago, but it has already grossed more profits than any of Jay-Z’s previous runs. Live Nation has said a new fee structure implemented to price out scalpers is to blame for empty seats. The new structure means higher prices for front-row seats and VIP experiences but lower ones for nosebleeds, and Live Nation says it's working.
"This tour will be the biggest headlining tour of Jay’s career,” Omar Al-Joulani, VP of touring at Live Nation, told Billboard earlier this month.
Many diehard fans were out Tuesday, but there was a noticeable number of unfilled seats. During Vic Mensa’s opening set, the arena was almost completely empty.
Once Jay-Z took the stage, he favored his old hits instead of giving 4:44 more play — surprising given the success of the album. It's his most heartfelt, self-aware and best collection of songs to date. One song that he played in full was “Kill Jay Z," the self-deprecating first track on 4:44, on which he confesses many of his past mistakes.
"Kill Jay Z" opens an album that lays bare its creator's worst transgressions, and Jay-Z used it as an opener for his concert, too. He rose from within the belly of stage to assume his position at the apex of the cone shaped pedastal, shrouded in fog and lit by orange flashing lights. It looked a bit like he was emerging from a volcano; it was quite an entrance.
The stage was designed so that Jay-Z was always the center of attention. On the platform, he stood some 30 feet above his band members, who weren’t really onstage at all. They were inside pockets at the base of the stage, on floor level with the audience, much like the musicians in an orchestral chamber.
The most dynamic parts of the stage set were the four enormous, double-sided monitors suspended around it, which were used to conceal Jay-Z’s entrance. Throughout the performance, they opened and closed like flower petals, changing angles and moving on tracks to hover over the audience.
The screens showed everything from close-ups of the rapper’s face while he was performing to aerial shots of the stage to more avant-garde image sequences during one of the interludes that Jay-Z used for a costume change. No matter where you were in the arena, Jay-Z was visible.
After he did about 30 minutes worth of songs from the apex of the platform, the center part lowered and became flat, giving Jay-Z more performance space. For the remainder of the show, he used the outer rim of the octagonal stage like a catwalk, nimbly working the crowd from all angles.
However, during this crowd work, Jay-Z kept dialogue to a minimum. When he spoke, he made his words count, talking profoundly about love, hardship and destiny.
"This was the most difficult song I've ever written,” Jay-Z told the crowd before launching into the title track from 4:44, his response to allegations that he cheated on his wife, Beyoncé. “You have to put yourself in an uncomfortable place in order to grow. ... If anybody out there tonight is struggling, let this song be your wings, let this song be your courage."
His performance of the song was pared down. He stood center stage with only a mic stand. He kept his hat brim low and leaned heavily into the stand for support while he rapped the verses, rotating to face each side of the arena as he confessed his sins. His pain was palpable.
In those moments, the arena felt incredibly small and intimate, and instead of a megamogul standing center stage, Jay-Z seemed like a regular kid from Brooklyn with an innate talent and enough street smarts to make something of himself.
He’s come a long way since 1998 when he released “Hard Knock Life,” and those hard knocks, of which there were many more to follow, molded Jay-Z into a philosophy-spitting emcee who commanded AAC on Tuesday evening.
After dealing with what could’ve been the most crushing of blows — losing the love of your life and the family you’ve made with her — he created the greatest rap album of the year. Jay-Z acknowledged his journey before launching into "Hard Knock Life," his first hit.
“There's no such thing as darkness; there’s only absence of light," he said. "Everything that happens to you in life is for your greatest good. Everything. No matter how tough it seems at the time, it’s just growing you for the next blessing. You remember that.”