In the hours leading up to Jay Zs concert at Time Warner Cable Arena on Saturday night, rumors were swirling that Beyoncé was also in Charlotte, which led to speculation that she might appear on stage with her rap-superstar husband.
She never showed. Which is fine because he didnt need her.
Over the course of 105 minutes, Jay Z maintained complete control of the nearly sold-out audience as he tongue-twisted his way through 28 tracks that spanned nearly two decades of hip-hop from deep tracks like Can I Live (off his 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt) to seven cuts off 2013 CD Magna Carta Holy Grail.
Now, I realize complete control probably comes off like a platitude, so Ill clarify. Typically, even the biggest hitmakers tend to fill one or two spots in the set list with personal favorites, or untested material, or stuff that simply changes the mood and drains momentum. You know its happening when half the people around you either take their seats or head for the bar and/or restroom.
This moment came just once Saturday night: when tour DJ Timbaland (himself an accomplished hitmaker) took over for eight minutes of record-spinning while the headliner did ... whatever it is he does backstage during this part of the show.
Otherwise, everyone was on their feet. The whole time. Many took things a step further and stood up on their chairs, after Jay Z implored them to do so mid-show. Holy Grail, 99 Problems, Dirt Off Your Shoulder, Big Pimpin these got the strongest reaction, predictably. I got a million of these! he shouted before launching into 2000s I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me). But even the obligatory emphasis on the new record had energy, if for no other reason than because Jay Z can flat-out rap.
The stage setup shunned arena-show staples like pyrotechnics and backup dancers; it consisted only of lights, video screens, steel cages, and platforms that supported his four-piece band. Vocals were crystal clear, helping to showcase his ridiculous flow. But he also mesmerizes with motion. While the microphone stays firmly connected to his right hand, his left endlessly points, bobs, weaves, sweeps, swooshes, slaps the air, flicks imaginary dirt off his shoulder, or simply rests on his inner thigh when it has not much else to do. It feels organic, naturally cool.
In between raps, he struggled at times with his banter. Early in the show, he referred to North Carolina as a city. Later, while giving props to fans who had sacrificed time and money to come out to his concert, he remarked, I dont take that with a grain of salt. (Realizing this didnt come out quite right, he added: I hope yall understand what Im saying. Im awkward with thank yous.)
Still, he handled his trademark shout-outs to various audience members with aplomb (even if the cameraman assigned to capture them for the video screens did not), building the interlude to a climax, where he reluctantly entrusted one delirious female fan seated near the stage with his mic.
Im gonna give you this, but dont make me regret it, Jay Z said with a wry smile. You give this s--- back, or I swear Im gonna come down there.
She went nuts. But he stayed calm, then got it back and proceeded to kill an encore studded with his biggest hits: Encore (naturally), Empire State of Mind, Izzo (H.O.V.A.), Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem), and Young Forever, which he dedicated to Nelson Mandela as cellphone lights bedazzled the arena from the bottom to the top.
If you were hoping for a cameo by pops queen on Saturday night, you may have left disappointed. But if you came looking for was a stellar performance by raps king, then: Mission accomplished.
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