Jay-Z was his usual super-confident self at the O2 Arena, a man who could sell bicycles to fish. He stood alone at the front of the stage. Behind him were four backing musicians in a pair of latticed structures, among them the producer Tim “Timbaland” Mosley. Screens on either side showed sinister Orwellian imagery of unblinking eyes and CCTV cameras.
There was some chutzpah here. Jay-Z is no stranger to data-mining himself. His latest album Magna Carta Holy Grail was given away as an app for Samsung phones this summer, the owners having to swap their personal details for the album. Stung by criticism about privacy invasion, Jay-Z has devised a stage show in which oppressive state power – the watching eyes on the screens were those of a white man – is contrasted with his own free-wheeling black entrepreneurialism.
“I’m a hustler, baby,” he declared in the opening number, “U Don’t Know” from his 2001 album The Blueprint. The rapper moved around the stage and rapped with self-assurance; one fast, twisty a cappella routine was supremely artful. At 43, he remains a highly charismatic performer. But there were signs the hustle is getting trickier to pull off.
New song “Holy Grail” was a messy collision of genres, its pre-recorded Justin Timberlake vocal hook crashing into a Nirvana sample. “Picasso Baby” was better, the rapper, whose sports shirt bore the painter’s name, making vainglorious boasts about collecting art over a hard-boiled New York beat. An overlooked element of self-parody exists in his rap oligarch persona. But as that persona grows more inflated so Jay-Z becomes more unreal.
Magna Carta’s tracks were dispatched in the first half of the show. Despite his air of confidence he seemed to lack faith in the album. With the telling announcement, “Let’s take it up to another level,” he proceeded to play a series of highlights from a career with more US number one albums than Elvis Presley. From an edgy “Dirt off Your Shoulder” to the Annie-goes-ghetto singalong “Hard Knock Life”, he bossed them.
But the tightrope wobbled again at the end. Introducing the soggy platitudes of “Young Forever”, Jay-Z issued a crocodilian warning about growing inequality between “the haves and have-nots”. This from someone who has trademarked his daughter’s name! The hustler’s trick of playing each side against the other has served Jay-Z well but it can’t continue indefinitely.
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