Jay-Z might not have had 99 problems on Thursday night in Charlotte, but he had one that was as bad as at least five or six: Due to some sort of unexplained production issue, fans didn’t even begin flowing into the arena until 8:15 p.m. – 15 minutes after the show was scheduled to start.
That’s not necessarily a huge deal at a small venue, but at the cavernous Spectrum Center in uptown, it’s cataclysmic. Nearly an hour later, there were still thousands of concertgoers queued up outside the arena, all fretting about whether they were going to miss Jay-Z’s entrance.
At 9:10, hip-hopper Vic Mensa wrapped his 22-minute set to what could best be described as a golf clap; his rhymes were heady and his performance was energetic, but he seemed barely able to mask the frustration in his voice as he quietly thanked the crowd and receded into the darkness off-stage.
Close to an hour after that (I’m guessing about 45 minutes later than he would have started under normal circumstances), four ceiling-hung, maneuverable, studio-apartment-sized screens opened up like a flower as the headliner finally appeared on the in-the-round stage amid a cloud of orange smoke.
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He made no apologies, yet within seconds of launching into the first verse of “Kill Jay Z,” all was forgiven.
And if anyone feared he might cut his set down to fit someone else’s schedule, they’d ultimately find out there was nothing to worry about: Jay did the full 95 minutes he’s been doing everywhere else on the “4:44 Tour,” with a set spanning 29 songs and all but three of his 13 studio albums. Yes, he performed seven cuts off the heavy-on-acclaim-but-light-on-hits new album, but the rap king also served up plenty of crowd-pleasers, from “Run This Town” to “N----s in Paris” to “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” the latter of which he ended with a shrug and an “I got a million of these!”
Dressed in white Nikes, black track pants, a black ballcap with “4:44” emblazoned on the side, and a black “Blind for Love” Gucci jacket, Jay gripped the mic in his right hand like a vise, using his left to jab the air, beat his chest, and flick his wrist like he was trying to get dirt off an imaginary friend’s shoulder.
There were minor wardrobe changes (a different jacket here, a gaudy gold chain there), but much more dramatic were the tonal shifts.
During “U Don’t Know” and “99 Problems” – as the live band wailed on electric guitars and Jay got virtually the whole crowd to flash and bob his “diamond” hand signal – the joint lit up like a rock concert.
For “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” and “On to the Next One,” the house went dark and he rapped as laser lights twirled, forming geometric shapes on the stage while highlighting the contours of his figure.
But there were reflective moments, too, that balanced out the party feel.
He dedicated “The Story of O.J.” – another new song, about black American identity – to comedian Dick Gregory (who died in August) and Muhammad Ali (who died last year).
He teed up “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” by saying “There’s no such thing as darkness. There’s only absence of light. So whenever you find yourself in a dark place, you just move towards light. You move towards positive people. You put yourself in a positive situation.”
Mid-“O.J.,” he provided his own explanation for why pro athletes have been kneeling during the national anthem: “That’s not about disrespect to the flag, that’s about injustice. That’s about young people losing their lives, getting senselessly murdered by people who are supposed to protect us. ... Everyone should be affected, no matter what color you are. If you’re not affected, something’s wrong with you.”
And in the starkest contrast to performances where he poured the self-adoration on thick (“Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and “Big Pimpin’,” both infectiously raucous), Jay poured his heart and soul out during the title track to “4:44” – his public apology to his wife, Beyonce (for, among other things, infidelities she alleged in her landmark 2016 album “Lemonade”).
Calling it “the most uncomfortable song I’ve ever written,” he stayed more still than he would all night, taking the mic with two hands, rapping with his eyes closed, just lightly tapping his foot as the ginormous screens descended to surround him.
It wasn’t until Jay wrapped – 25 minutes shy of midnight, with a nod to late Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington via “Numb/Encore” – that fans snapped back to reality, to the realization that they’d owe babysitters overtime and probably wear some bleary eyes to work on Friday.
(For the record, we asked Spectrum Center for details about the delay, and never got a response.)
But based on the praise I overheard fans heaping on Jay-Z as they headed for the exits, they’d probably be willing to endure a delay twice as long if they knew a Jay-Z concert this dope was there waiting for them at the end of it.
1. “Kill Jay Z”
2. “No Church in the Wild” (Jay-Z and Kanye West cover)
5. “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)”
6. “Run This Town”
8. “Beach Is Better”
11. “Jigga My N----”
12. “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”
13. “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”
14. “On to the Next One”
15. “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)”
16. “Public Service Announcement” (Interlude)
17. “Family Feud”
18. “U Don’t Know”
19. “99 Problems”
20. “Big Pimpin’ ”
23. “The Story of O.J.”
24. “N----s in Paris” (Jay-Z and Kanye West cover)
25. “Where I’m From”
26. “Empire State of Mind”
27. “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)”
29. “Numb / Encore” (Jay-Z and Linkin Park cover)