Even at this stage in his career, Jay Z still wants us to remember that he isn't too rich to empathize with your regular-ass problems. Standing triumphantly after his third sweaty shirt swap of the night (this time, he was wearing a hoodie with the name of Jean Michele Basquiat on it), he thanked the packed arena for showing up and pointed out several of the 99 problems you could've encountered on Friday just getting ready for his show–filling up the gas tank, hiring a baby sitter, shelling out for a brand new outfit, etc.
It was a welcomed gesture, even for a guy who'd literally just been nominated for nine Grammys for his latest effort, Magna Carta…Holy Grail, arguably his most opulent album to date, with lyrics that flaunt enough celebrity-level problems, highbrow art, and pomposity to outshine Watch the Throne. Though it got generally mixed reviews from critics, Magna Carta went double platinum and definitely left its signature on hip-hop this year. People still want to hear what Hov has to say, even if they can't always relate–whether it's a song about selling crack or being able to afford a Picasso hanging over their fireplace. When it comes down to it, we just wanna see him be great.
He obliged us from the opening lines of his “F.U.T.W.” intro to kick off the set that bled into classic Blueprint banger “U Don't Know.”
“I have a feeling it's gonna be a special night in California,” he shouted, rocking a backwards Brooklyn cap, Magna Carta shirt, black boots and gold chains. You could say he was already having a special night thanks to all those Grammy nods, but it must've felt even sweeter as he basked in the crowd's a capella howling of the Justin Timberlake hook to the summer hit “Holy Grail” that rained over the house speakers.
The set up on stage was relatively stripped down compared to early shows from his homies Drake and JT, who've both been though the Honda Center recently, not to mention Kanye West's rescheduled Yeezus monstrosity coming through Anaheim on Friday. Even without pyro, levitating stages or back up dancers, the trap claps of “Fuckwitmeuknowigotit” or the scorching guitar and bombastic “99 Problems” hit hard all on their own as columns of grimy TV static and epileptic flashes illuminated the audience from behind Hov's band.
The rich man's fantasy he paints so vividly on “Picasso Baby” incited waves of hands in the air from the first note of the soggy synth line dripping with swag. A couple times the momentum of Magna Carta's bluster was slowed down by the contemplative street tales of “Dead President's II” (finally, something from Reasonable Doubt!) and the Frank Ocean-assisted Watch the Throne track “No Church in the Wild.”
Perhaps it's no surprise that legendary producer Timbaland would make some kind of cameo after all the work he did on Jigga's new album, but it took a minute for our eyes to calibrate in the darkness to see that he was actually in the band the whole time making beats and playing keys. That is until he took center stage for his special interlude featuring a rundown of the beats from Aaliyah and missy Elliot's greatest hits, complete with his tight beat boxing skills, deep voice between cuts and a gregarious smile that let us know "hell yeah, I'm just glad to be on this stage right now.” But it wasn't all about the early He and the band (dubbed the four horsemen, featuring the crushing drums of Tony Royster Jr.) also sneaked in a new track from his forthcoming release "Textbook Timbo.”
Returning refreshed, Jay Z's second act was propelled by some heavy radio hitters, including "Big Pimpin' Vol.3,” "Nigga What, Nigga Who,” and "Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” To this day, not even a master debater could argue the aural superiority of late '90s Jay Z.
Though one might've hoped to see a couple more surprise guests on stage (how cool would it have been to see 'Ye sneak out during "Niggas in Paris,” or Rihanna coming out to cap the set to sing for the hook "Run This Town”?) Hov handled things fine on his own. Things took an inspiring turn during the encore when the rapper honored the memory of Nelson Mandela with the help of a flashlight tribute from the crowd that turned the dark arena into a galaxy of light similar to the one the iconic a partied warrior is enjoying now, albeit at a much greater altitude.
Mandela, who recently passed away on Dec. 5 at age 95, was an enduring symbol of how surviving a hard knock life can lead to greatness and inspire so many. And while today's Jay Z might be trying to elevate his game by creating an intersection between high art and hip-hop (which can be commendable in the right doses) the crowd's response to his classic work is a reminder that people will always have more affinity for a hungry artist with their eyes on the prize than a rapper with more prizes than he knows what to do with.
Critical Bias:I once drove back and forth to highschool for a month with The Blueprint in my CD player.
The Crowd:PEople who have a relatively hard time dealing with the cold. Literally everyone I walked past was complaining about it on the way in.
Overheard:"Look at that guy over there dancing in his chair. I think he's popping mollies!”
Random Notebook Dump:Jay Z's schtick where he spotlights members in the crowd at the end of his show is always great, even though every big name rapper has some variation of it now.