Ever since he returned from premature retirement in 2006, much of Jay-Z’s recorded and onstage output has served as an extended victory lap. From his evolution into a live performer on par with classic rock’s great touring workhorses to his continual recounting of his own accomplishments on record, Shawn Carter has largely spent the last decade trying to keep one eye on contemporary culture and the other on maintaining his legacy. Yet when he spiked the microphone onto the stage and strode into the crowd at the end of his explosive two-hour set at Inglewood’s Forum on Thursday night – the last night of his tour in support of the multiple Grammy-nominated album, “4:44” – there was at last a sense that Jay-Z had something new to celebrate.
It wasn’t just that he dug far deeper into his back catalog than on previous tours (he tucked the entire first verse of the rarely performed “Dead Presidents II” into the middle of the also rarely performed “Allure”), or that his between-song banter strove for something more meaningful than the usual crowd-pumping gestures (he dedicated “Numb/Encore” to the late Chester Bennington, and spoke at some length on the importance of mental health and asking for help). It was that he used his new material to re-contextualize his older hits in intriguing ways, giving hip-hop’s most consistent live performer the one thing his shows have sometimes lacked: a sense of surprise.
Opening with the self-loathing new song “Kill Jay-Z,” Jay began on an unusually somber note. As massive video screens slowly rose to reveal an elevated round stage (with DJs and a full band hidden in orchestra pit-style pockets below), Jay paced in circles with an atypical caginess. “No Church in the Wild,” “Lucifer” and “D’Evils” followed, four different confessional tracks from four different points in his career. By the time he got to his new album’s centerpiece – the extended marital mea culpa “4:44” – Jay admitted how “uncomfortable” the song was to perform, and he didn’t appear to be exaggerating. Scant rappers have crafted choruses more perfectly engineered to be screamed along in unison, yet the L.A. crowd seemed unsure how to respond to the sight of Jay, standing stationary with his face buried in the mic stand, intoning his litany of apologies with what seemed to be genuine discomfort.
After the early bloodletting, however, the stage flattened out, bringing Jay down to audience level, and he brought out the big guns. It isn’t just that Jay has a deep reservoir of hits from which to draw, it’s that few MCs of his era have spent as much time figuring out how to best put those hits over in an arena environment. The band, especially its two drummers, beefed up Just Blaze productions “Public Service Announcement” and “U Don’t Know” into thunderous hard-rock headbangers; “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” and “On to the Next One” were accompanied by a dazzling laser display; and the late run through “Where I’m From,” “Empire State of Mind” and “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” was expertly sequenced for maximum underdog uplift.
The lower-fi tracks from “4:44” often stood out like sore thumbs amid the blockbuster anthems, but they helped with the pacing of the set. “Moonlight” served as a low-key, lowly-lit palate cleanser; the tender “Smile” was performed in a stripped down arrangement, shorn of its Stevie Wonder sample, featuring Jay reciting the lyrics in a nearly spoken-word cadence; and this year’s Grammy Record of the Year nominee “The Story of O.J.” was followed quickly by 2011’s radio smash “N—s in Paris,” with Jay’s speech on “Black excellence” explicitly linking the racial provocations of the former with the materialistic empowerment of the latter. Jay’s tendency to equate his own Horatio Alger story with general social progress can be problematic – and if ever there were a week when audiences might hesitate to cheer along with a millionaire mogul’s celebration of success, it’s this one – but he certainly knows how to state his case.
Given that it was the closing night of the tour in front of a celebrity-rich crowd (Rihanna, James Franco, and Queen Latifah were all on hand), one might have expected a few bold-name guest stars to wrap up the evening. But Jay went in the opposite direction, closing with a long, curfew-breaking, seemingly unrehearsed medley aimed squarely at the diehards. After the end of the set proper, Jay’s DJ began combing through his catalog for beats – “Feelin’ It,” “Who You Wit,” “Can’t Knock the Hustle” – challenging the rapper to keep up. Sometimes he didn’t: after botching the first verse of “Roc Boys,” Jay stopped the music and stumblingly worked out the lyrics a cappella, as though unaware of the 17,000 fans surrounding him on all sides. And yet it all made sense as a whole. The show worked its way from lacerating vulnerability to rock star imperiousness to block-party looseness, and when the night finally ended with “What More Can I Say,” the title said it all.