By Mark Guarino
The chairman of the board pulled out of retirement early Thursday morning. Not to preside over a hostile takeover or to extinguish the flames of an accounting department gone bad.
For Jay-Z — the 37-year-old hip-hop kingpin who wears multiple hats as record label president, fashion mogul, celebrity boyfriend, music mentor and rap veteran — the momentary lapse in his much ballyhooed 2004 retirement was to promote a new album and show he can still sustain a crowd for almost two hours in the wee hours of the morning.
He took the stage at the House of Blues at 12:20 a.m. Thursday and performed a little over 90 minutes. The stated reason was “American Gangster” (Roc-A-Fella/Island Def Jam), a collection of new songs that debuted this week alongside the blockbuster Denzel Washington film credited as the inspiration. But this brief, weeklong, five-city club tour also gave Jay-Z — arguably the most respected figure in commercial hip-hop — the opportunity to witness how high his lofty status is raised these days. Instead of a quickie promotional visit, he turned the night into a fully engaging show, complete with a 12-member band, superstar cameos and songs that spanned his 10-album catalog.
Rappers have traditionally turned to crime sagas, from “Scarface” to “New Jack City,” because they offer rich source material for lyrics. On “American Gangster,” Jay-Z delivers lyrics from the perspective of Frank Lucas, the real life character played by Washington, and also positions himself as a beleaguered mogul who knows a thing or two about the high life.
Even though the album was just released Tuesday, concertgoers knew the majority of the hooks by heart, dutifully delivering the chorus of “No Hook” for him and later, singing along to the soul hook of “Party Life.”
But Jay-Z did not make the new songs the main event. Instead, he took the rare chance of the club backdrop to engage the crowd individually. The band frequently stopped on a dime so he could freestyle solo. He playfully performed a speed duel with the drummer to see who was the fastest (the drummer won). In short, this show shook loose the massive expectations of a stadium show, and was all about spontaneity and fun.
The setlist mostly looked backwards at career-defining singles like “99 Problems” and “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)” which the band, including three horn players and three singers, gave them weight and scope. Mid-way through, Jay-Z was joined by some of his former protégés — Memphis Bleek, Freeway and Beanie Sigel. But the greatest impact came when Chicago hero Kanye West rushed the stage.
West closed out the night’s final 15 minutes. Jay-Z, who knew to defer to West in his hometown, mockingly dusted West’s jacket and sat back while his former producer delivered his own songs like “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and “Good Life.” They closed the show with a rousing version of “Encore.” “I gotta come to Chi-town more often,” Jay-Z said just before 2 a.m. He got no argument.