Even before the stage lights came on at American Airlines Center on Saturday night, the stage set-up was noticeably sparse, with minimalist scaffolding that looked downright reserved compared to other arena acts such as Kanye West's elaborate, Las Vegas-style Yeezus mountain.
The audience immediately stood as Shawn Corey Carter walked out onto the stage for the Dallas stop on the Magna Carter World Tour. There wasn't an opening act for Carter, who for 20 years has performed under the stage name Jay Z. Instead, before the show, the crowd bounced along as a DJ played tracks ranging from N.W.A.'s Boyz-n-the-Hood" to Migos' "Versace."
When Carter finally took the stage for his nearly two-hour set, he was dressed in all black from his sneakers to a black leather Brooklyn Nets ball cap. Well, all black except for a few thick gold chains around his neck and the white cross on the back of his T-shirt.
Earlier this month, the 44-year-old rapper's latest full-length effort was nominated for nine Grammy Awards - more than anyone else this year. And starting with "F.U.T.W." (Fuck Up the world) and all the way through his set to "Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit," it was clear in Dallas that Jay Z still has "it."
Jay Z is a fascinating performer to watch. He raps with confidence and conviction. He possesses a power, a flow and a raw stage presence that few performers can claim. He doesn't rely on an elaborate Broadway-like stage production complete with costume changes, backup dancers or actors, pyrotechnics, lasers and smoke machines. Only two video screens flanked the stage.
And, as Jay Z paced the stage, belting out the lyrics to some of the greatest, Grammy-winning chart-toppers in the history of hip-hop, images on the big screens flashed from live shots of the stage and the audience to taped shots of surveillance cameras, drone warfare footage and redacted government documents.
Jay's delivery of "99 Problems" sounded as potent as it did when it was released nearly a decade ago on. Sure, it helped that he was backed by the legendary producer and chart-topping songwriter Timbaland as well as the amazing Tony Royster on drums - one of Royster's furious solos ended with him literally pounding the drums and cymbals with his fists.
The evening's set list played out like a greatest hits collection, reaching as far back as "Dead Presidents II" and "Can I Live" from 1996's Reasonable Doubt. There was also a heavy dose of the strongest tracks from his latest album "Magna Carta Holy Grail." Jay and the band easily had the sharply dressed audience bouncing along for the lively "Tom Ford." And the crowd sang along to the live version of the not-so-humble #humblebrag that is "Picasso Baby."
The whole place erupted for the first drop in "Holy Grail," and then toward the end, the crowd really carried the Timberlake sing-a-long part of the song. And the cameras caught Jay Z smiling. Like, really smiling. He seemed genuinely moved by the audience.
"Peace and love, thank you," he said as he walked off stage for a few minutes before the inevitable encore. While he was off stage, many in the audience started chanting: "Ho-va! Ho-va! Ho-va!" And Jay Z and the band kicked off the encore with "Encore," "Empire State of Mind" and "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)."
Before launching into Watch the Throne's "Niggas in Paris," Jay Z said something about paying "all the fines" from the fire marshal, before ordering: "Security, stand down - everybody get in the aisles!" Naturally, his fans complied and poured into the aisles, as fines-be-damned Jay buzzed: "I ball so hard mothafuckas wanna fine me."
His interactions with the audience were one of the most noteworthy things of the night. And, even before the encore, he engaged and complimented the crowd: "Y'all sound so good out there!" But it was during the encore that he really laid it on thick between songs: "I appreciate your energy." "I have a really difficult time saying thank you. But I did it tonight."
"No matter how many Grammy's, I will never get jaded."
"There's so much love in here tonight."
"I had an incredible time with y'all tonight."
Jay Z ended the night with a performance of "Young Forever" that I would imagine no one in attendance will ever forget. He asked the crowd to take out their cell phones and turn on the lights. Before launching into the "Do you really want to live forever?" Jay Z dedicated the song to Nelson Mandela, and, well, preached to the crowd: "If anybody out there got a dream. Don't anybody let nobody put their fears on you, and tell you what you can't do. Anything is possible. Believe that. Sing!"
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