“There’s no such thing as darkness, only an absence of light,” JAY-Z told the packed Honda Center as he took the stage on the opening night of his 4:44 tour. “Remember,” he continued. “Love trumps hate.”
With that spirit, the legendary New Yorker took the stage in support of the album that the tour is inspired by. Sporting a black cap (which was available for purchase for the low price of $55) a black jacket, which gave way to a white hoodie, black pants and white sneakers, the 47-year-old was as raw as he’s ever been on-stage.
Surrounded by four, multi-sided screens that shifted and changed vantage points throughout the show, the veteran rapper blitzed through a blend of older triumphant tracks with the deeply personal material that comprised 4:44.
In the four years since the release of Magna Carta Holy Grail, JAY-Z has publicly gone through tumult that engulfed his personal life. Solange’s now-infamous in a New York City elevator, the stormy outlook that marked his On the Run tour with wife Beyoncé, and the subsequent release of her album Lemonade only magnified their private life. It’s also his deeply personal 4:44 is there rapper’s best album in years.
That said, there’s little that JAY-Z has yet to accomplish in his decorated music and business career. Since he became a mega-star in the late-‘90s and a mega-mogul in the past decade, he’s been one of the most recognized people in the world. As his bank account swelled and family grown, it would be completely understandable and plausible if Mr. Carter had little regard to record music — nevertheless at the blistering pace that defined his early career.
Raised high (and at times, not so high) above an octagon-shaped stage in the arena’s center, JAY came ready to rumble. He brought a number of musicians and DJs with him, who were nestled in small open areas by at the stage’s base. It was these unheralded musicians who shaped the sound and allowed JAY to keep the spotlight and dazzle the crowd in a way only he can. A rapper by himself own on-stage in an arena is generally a recipe for disaster. Not every rapper is Hova, however.
Unless you have Tidal or Sprint, hearing 4:44 was challenging. It’s easily one of JAY-Z’s most revealing, and he didn’t hide from it’s deeply personal subject matter. “The Story of O.J.” featured animation tailored to show racial stereotypes that have been lingering for years. Following that song, he also didn’t waste time criticizing Houston Texans owner Bob McNair who made derogatory comments about his players earlier in the day.
Remorse and redemption were two of the major themes of the performance. The highlights of the night were the behind-the-scenes moments where he let down his notoriously private guard, which included photos shared from his wife’s Instagram account. Introducing “4:44” as a song that is “Difficult for me to perform,” his eyes were squeezed shut, and he emphasized each gut wrenching word with the same sense of apology as intended when written. Interludes on the screens included a glimpse of his new twins and he was edited out of some of the videos, including tossing young Blue Ivy.
Even with these serious themes overarching the show, the rapper managed to enjoy himself. Powering through classics like “Big Pimpin,’” “I Just Wanna Love You,” “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)” and “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” put the rapper at ease. In a good mood throughout the night, JAY shared intros and explanations for songs like “Allure” from The Black Album, which he says is his favorite from his vast catalog, “N****z in Paris” (“This may be flossy shit on the surface, but it’s about people counting you out and overcoming the odds”) and “Hard Knock Life” (“A song about going through shit if you’re at the bottom”). JAY-Z keeps most things close to the hip, and to hear him describe his songs in such poignant fashion made the themes of the show even more powerful.
Since this was the first night, there were plenty of minor hitches in the program. At times, the screens didn’t seem in sync, with some not working or not in conjunction with its counterpart. Yet, these minor snafus didn’t distract from the show. Instead, it showed how impressive a performer JAY-Z is.
During JAY-Z’s dedication of “Encore/Numb” to fallen friend Chester Bennington, there was a degree of urgency in this performance that’s been missing from the rapper in recent years. Yes, he’s become a family man and has become accustomed to the good life, but on this song — and pretty much the whole show here — the point he’s proving is that’s back because he has some shit to say, and not to add to his nine-figure fortune.
Even if that means apologizing for spilling water on the stage while joking about this being the first night (and to his credit taking a towel and wiping the floor) or not being able to get off the stage in a Spinal Tap-esque move, JAY-Z showed why he’s considered one of the greatest live acts in rap history. He may not be able to get out of complicated contraptions like the old days, but JAY can seamlessly overcome it by roaming through the crowd and high-5ing fans. It’s why he remains so popular and added an intimate touch to a deeply personal show. With a serious show, it’s moments like “Empire State of Mind” and “99 Problems” that were the most illuminating. Basking in the camera phone lit, JAY couldn’t help but grin, knowing that his people are along for the journey and aren’t going away any time soon.