Classy Jay-Z shows why he has staying power

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

March 19, 2010

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times

In the remaining half hour of his show at the United Center on Thursday, Jay-Z thanked and excused everyone in the audience who came to hear his most recent hits and then announced it was “overtime” — a chance for him to return to songs from “Reasonable Doubt,” his debut album circa 1996.

Fourteen years is a generous sprint for a rock band, but for a hip-hop artist, it’s an eternity. Shawn Carter, a 40-year-old rapper also known as a record executive, entrepreneur and Beyonce’s husband, represents his own category — a hip-hop artist who not only is enjoying hit songs in his middle years, but who can still fill basketball stadiums when he wants to hit the road.

Yet on this tour, Jay-Z wasn’t a wizened veteran or protective mentor — two roles he could have played if he wanted. Instead he showed why he has staying power in a playing field where most rappers creatively stagnate after their first vitamin water sponsorship. Part of the reason is that Jay-Z never relied on shock to sell songs, only class and savvy. The other reasons are the indelible pop hooks of his songs that represent the finesse of his vocal delivery and also a musicality that make them sound perfect in a stadium sung by thousands of perfect strangers.

He provided several moments for just that, arriving on stage with “Run This Town,” this year’s Grammy winner that allowed the crowd (including NBA star LeBron James, seated prominently behind the soundboard) to join canned vocals from Rihanna. A 10-member band, including three horn players, expanded the songs from their recorded counterparts — songs like “D.O.A. (Death of AutoTune),” “99 Problems,” “Heart of a City (Ain’t No Love)” and “Show Me What You Got” could be appreciated, not just for their lyrical bouts, but also for their funky grooves and off-kilter meters.

The stage had a backline of digitized columns that morphed from stacks of Marshall amps into the New York City skyline — all tastefully executed, as was the decision to bring in vocalist Bridget Kelly to fill in for Alicia Keys on “Empire State of Mind.”

Opener Young Jeezy didn’t appear until the middle — a 20-minute mid-show break that provided contrast to the larger show. The rapper’s gruffer approach and grandiose approach (how else can you explain performing in front of a backdrop of all of your album covers?) gave the show an unfortunate reality check.

With Jay-Z back, it was time for the inevitable: a chance to play “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” probably the only hip-hop song referenced by a presidential candidate. A video of President Obama (literally) brushing away criticism started the song, but Jay-Z ended it. Earlier the rapper broke rank with his catalog once — on “Hovi Baby” he stopped to update his years in the game. When a sitting president is poaching your material, as they say, it’s too late to stop now.

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