There were nearly a thousand people packed into the former Theatre of Living Arts (TLA) (recently renamed the Fillmore at the TLA by LiveNation) on South Street in Philadelphia. The normally packed, bustling street was blocked off, as only ticketholders were being permitted to approach the venue. Tickets were being scalped at absurd prices. Jay-Z, the Michael Jordan of rap and a current day Frank Sinatra, had come to reclaim his belt on the next to last stop of his American Gangster mini-tour.Jay-Z is perhaps the single most important popular artist of this generation. For over a decade, this man has set the bar artistically in his genre while influencing culture, music and society in large and numerous ways. The Jordan comparisons are not a stretch. Like Michael, his game is vicious, and while not without fault, there is nary a rapper that can match his catalog, influence and sheer dominance for such an extensive period. It will be interesting to see how history looks back at Shawn Carter, but in the here and now, no one can do it better. The man compares himself to the likes of Berry Gordy, The Grateful Dead and Cassius Clay. Esteemed company to be sure, and this new masterpiece of an album, with a matching live performance, only served to solidify his legend.
“You know this is a special night,” Jay-Z said. “There are like about a million people out there who wish they was in here with you!” A cliché, yet nonetheless truth as the man they call Hov took the stage. A large, black-tie outfitted twelve-piece band, reminiscent of James Brown’s glorious JBs, promptly threw down with a vicious one-two punch from American Gangster (released November 6, 2007 on Roc-A-Fella). Kicking-off with “Pray,” the gothic, up-tempo jam that vividly opens the new record and “No Hook,” a lengthy, aggressive rhyme that delves into the hustler mentality with double and triple entendres that reflect on Jay-Z’s own diverse life and career, the night was off to a splendid start. Despite his band’s classy attire, Hov kept it street, rocking a ’80s style black leather bomber jacket and a black t-shirt with an inverted American flag. His crisp, sharp denim probably cost more than my car.
After a little storytelling akin to his VH1 special, Hov directed the band into “99 Problems,” a hard rock riff, courtesy of Rick Rubin, from 2003’s The Black Album, and a song that Phish famously backed Jay on during their final tour in the summer of 2004. The band switched the style up and dropped AC/DC’s “Back in Black” seamlessly into the second verse, only to the return to the syncopated bar chords. There was a freewheeling, truly live spirit that came through the performance. Hov whipped the room into a frenzy with the explicit wordplay and ungodly arrogance of “U Don’t Know” from the Blueprint II, only to sooth the ladies with an ethereal Neptunes’ track from AG, “I Know.” The trio of back-up singers surpassed the original with unadulterated R&B flavor, and Hov’s conversational flow and longing verses unearthed newfound beauty in the Pharrell production.
The bounce banger “N*gg* What? N*gg* Who? (Originators99)” served up some truly sick, old-school Jiggaman double-time rhyme schemes with that stutter-step, Timbaland drum-and-bass madness rumbling underneath him.Jay-Z was at the top of his game, but the band deserves a lot of shine here. This ensemble – drums and percussion, a bass player and guitarist, two keyboard players, a three piece horn section, three backup vocalists and DJ Green-Lantern – gave the material a palpable sense of transcendence. A lot of cats these days come with just a DAT machine, or a DJ who just drops instrumentals, or even records with vocals for artists to “spit” over (*cough* FIDDY *cough*). Jay brought a vigorously prepared and spirited band. ?uestlove (The Roots) is usually Jay-Z’s musical director, with his band Illadelphonics and Just Blaze on the wheels backing Jay. ?uest posted on Okayplayer.com that missed voicemails and late text messages precluded him from getting it together for this mini-tour. So, Puffy worked his magic and slapped together The Roc Boys for this run of shows. The band is beyond tight, and they made even the very average like “Kingdom Come” sound interesting.
After Hov and the Roc Boys had a firm grip on the Philly massive, they ignited the powder keg. Entrenched amongst bubblegoose down jackets, new-era brims and shortys with door knockers dangling from their ears, I heard the low notes on the piano drone, and the Hammond B3 began to swirl through the Leslie cabinet. “PSA” dropped with a thunderclap and the venue exploded. After “Allow me to reintroduce myself” it all becomes fuzzy, with the crowd giving Jigga everything they had. “I’m like Che Guevara wit’ bling on, I’m complex,” exulted Jay as the drums thumped with authority. The band enhanced the ferocity of what might be his best banger ever, making it surpass its recorded version with the help of a thousand fans who held their two-handed diamond signs overhead in tribute.
The energy level in the building ratcheted up a few notches as the Rocafella clique hit the stage. This lounge band eased their way through the opulent “Excuse Me Miss.” Hov made an abrupt detour to the remix, otherwise known as “La La La,” as he was joined by Memphis Bleek, Beanie Sigel and Freeway. They immediately launched into a firing rendition of “You, Me, Him, & Her,” passing the mic old-school fashion as the track moved into the West Coast G-funk of “Change the Game.” The boom-bap drumbeat and chicken scratch guitar of State Property’s “Roc the Mic” laid a foundation for Freeway and Beans to get their distinct flows on. Next, “What We Do” was wild, a fierce cautionary tale where Hov, Beanie, and Freeway went for broke over a bananas beat.
After Young Guns, another Philly Roc affiliate, jumped onstage, Lil’ Neefiereintroduced himself to his hometown and the band played their one hit, “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,” possibly out of sympathy. These boys had promise but unfortunately got lost in the Def Jam/Rocafella shuffle. It was wonderful to see this crew back together, spittin’ the Roc-gospel as a unit. Sigel stayed on for a killer rendition of American Gangster‘s biting “Ignorant Shit,” a slick and ferocious number that pretty much celebrates all things Sigel. This track is an oldie, originally created after Just Blaze first got his Rocafella chain, and shortly after Hov began his lyrical war with Nas. “Ignorant Shit” leaked and was traded online back in 2002. On this newer version, Just Blaze tightened the screws, Beans dug deep and Hov added a poignant final verse addressing Don Imus and the Young Hollywood train wreck set; “Are you sayin’ what I’m spittin’ is more dangerous than these celebutaunts showin’ they kitten? You kidding? Lets stop the b*llsh*tin’. Till we all without sin, let’s quit the pulpittin’!”
After whipping the crowd into a proverbial frenzy, the familiar bounce of the era-defining “Big Pimpin'” arrived, with its round, thumping bottom end. The Roc Boys handled this very musical production well as Jay jumped aboard the funkdafied track and spat his memorable lyrics. The crowd, in unison, gave back every syllable with feeling. After about 16 bars, Hov just crossed his arms, mic in hand, and smirked, allowing the jacked-up audience to finish his verse and the chorus. A thunderous roar erupted after the song concluded, and Hov savored the moment. Then, he said, “Y’all don’t even need me no more,” and proceeded to exit stage right.
After a moment of brief silent uncertainty, the Roc Boys jumped into an instrumental medley of early Jigga classics, which the crowd again took the vocals on. The band ran through portions of “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” “Can I Get A F*ck You,” and “Ain’t No N*gg*,” allowing Philly to get their Hov on proper.Of course, this too was another canned part of the act, with Jay reappearing for an encore set before the now dripping Philadelphia audience. The band dipped into the sexy, pimpadelic “Party Life,” a tale of lusty braggadocio set to simmering, luscious R&B. Jay didn’t disappoint, with the live rendition retaining most, if not all, of its exquisiteness. The banging “What More Can I Say?,” a standout from The Black Album, was unleashed by vicious horns. “Blue Magic,” a throwback jam and the first single off American Gangster, was delivered with mesmerizing precision. Equal parts Lil’ Wayne and Zack De La Rocha, the distinctive old-school vibe on this track made it seem somewhat out of place in the context of the concept album, however, in concert it seemed perfect.
“Encore” was delivered in positively royal fashion. There aren’t enough superlatives for the live version of this one, and the same can be said for the anthemic “ROC Boys,” the celebratory new single. This song could actually close the curtains on his career; it’s that good. It was a picture perfect note to end the show on. This evening contained a production, energy, and ethos that will not be easily recreated. This concert was one for the ages that demonstrated the power and ecstasy possible in the live music experience. This is what happens when you pursue excellence in all arenas of your art.
JamBase | Illadelph
[Published on: 1/7/08]
- G.R.A.B. And Phil Lesh & Friends Visits To New Jersey- 2006 (B.Getz on JamBase)
- Uncovering Matisyahu – B.Getz on JamBase (2007)