Jay-Z started a five-city mini-tour of intimate venues Tuesday, intent on proving his continued relevance while hyping his new album, “American Gangster.” Throughout the 90-minute show, Jay-Z was clearly out to impress, periodically halting his 11-piece backing band to deliver verses a capella or create impromptu rhymes. Material from “Gangster” made up roughly a third of the set, and while those songs’ ’70s soul samples recall Jay’s 2001 opus “The Blueprint,” the lyrics reflected a welcome maturity.
A sense of fallibility, just as much as an early screening of Ridley Scott’s film “American Gangster,” have inspired this concept album, which uses the film’s antihero, Frank Lucas, as a touchstone for some of the most insightful rhymes of the rapper’s career. “Blue Magic” and “I Know,” in particular, saw the Brooklyn rapper balancing his prior glorification of the drug trade with hard knowledge of the misery it has wrought on poor communities.
Mostly eschewing the crowd-baiting gestures that are often the bane of live hip-hop, Jay-Z kept the focus on his rhymes and his voice, which, with its sing-songy cadences and breathless ease with enjambment, remains one of the most evocative in hip-hop. Appropriately, when he did draw from his catalog, he downplayed the obvious hits in favor of acrobatic tongue-twisters such as “Jigga What, Jigga Who” and “Hovi Baby.”
Though less inventive than Jay’s onetime backing band the Roots, his current touring squad did manage a number of coups, cleverly melding a snippet of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” onto “The Black Album” hit single “99 Problems” and allotting drummer Tony Royster a brief solo. For three songs midset, Jay relinquished the spotlight to proteges Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek and Freeway, resulting in little more than sonic overkill.
Despite his newfound humility, Jay-Z couldn’t hold his ego in check completely. For the encore — titled, appropriately enough, “Encore” — he was joined by “American Gangster” producers Diddy and Jermaine Dupri, neither of whom did anything more than gamely dance around the stage.