Return of the King

There’s a particular form of greatness, cultural and otherwise, that tends to frame one’s achievements through a lens of global conquest, as though (in the case, let’s say, of a mega-successful hip-hop artist) he will be the first to somehow unify all pop arts and commerce under a unified championship belt. Jay-Z leans firmly in this direction, with credentials firmly established as a heavyweight puncher, though his latest Magna Carta Holy Grail has landed more glancing blows than roundhouse rights.

The history-referencing Jay-Z, though, presumably knows the lesson Alexander the Great leaves us: Holding onto an empire can be much more daunting than assembling one. And so he launches himself into the winter months on an American tour (kicking off in St. Paul last Saturday night), a middle-aged mogul with a miles-deep playlist and presumably more than a small interest in maintaining his position as regent atop the hip-hop hill.

Which he did, more or less. Leaning heavily on a passel of tunes from the new album, in the early going, his show gave a palpable sense of trying to find its feet. In presentation the show embraced contradictions, throwing out blinding light and vivid projection that seemed state-of-the-art yet often generic, lacking service to story in a narrative art form, and often making the actual physical frame of our star look diminished and remote compared to his projection.

But there was clearly a vision of cohesion here, and it came together more and more as matters progressed. While the backing female vocals on the hits came pre-recorded, Jay-Z performed accompanied by live drums and keyboards, and production legend Timbaland anchored one side of the stage and led a virtuosic solo mixing exhibition mid-show that lent an improvisatory intimacy to the night. Sonically, the glue held together.

And when the hits alternated with the new stuff, a certain unity emerged to this mix of bombast and laid-back showmanship, a lone performer on a microphone surrounded by millions in special effects trying to connect across a gulf of culture and technology. And while he might be a sneakily good showman, the laconic idol seemed genuinely surprised by the level of energy that accumulated in the room, and his ability to generate heat and human connection almost in spite of all the gadgetry and celebrity he trails with him like flags on a battleship.

By the end he’d brought up the house lights partway and interacted with the first few rows of the audience on camera, a gimmick that also cannily demonstrated a desire to burst through the remoteness of the throne—on his own terms, no doubt, but perhaps with the instincts of a benevolent dictator. For the opening night of Jay-Z’s tour managed lift-off despite its own weight, buoyed by the spirit of its star and ample evidence of what got him there in the first place—a first-rate knack for tunes, a love of the moment, and a connection with his audience undiminished by all the messy business of empire building (and maintenance).