For rappers in particular there’s a fear of losing potency with age — hip-hop is for the young and scrappy. At some point Snoop Dogg must start to think his “izzles” are childish, or Lil Wayne would grow out of aliens and codeine. But not Jay Z. Two days before his 44th birthday, Jay Z showed the Pepsi Center why he’s a hip-hop artist who can perform hits from 10 or almost 20 years ago with the same conviction.
Take for example when Jay Z dropped into “Dead Presidents II” midway through his set on Monday. He rapped the track from his 1996 debut like a ballad, accompanied by no beat and only that drifting piano line. It was a moment of honesty (or clarity if we’re making shameless Jay Z puns), especially compared to the “Magna Carta Holy Grail” material that he’s currently touring. When it comes to Jay Z, even some of his biggest pop hits have aged like wine — there’s nothing silly about a 44-year-old Hova singing “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” in 2013.
Like a man with nothing to prove, Jay Z took the stage on Monday with little glamour. A simple stage setup of metal scaffolding held his four-piece backing band (which, yes, included Timbaland) and was flanked by two vertical rectangle screens. With the exception of his glittering watch and chains, he was casually dressed. Jay Z’s three barely noticeable costume changes included a Tom Ford Jersey and a Basquiat shirt. And what was striking was how humble Jay Z was on stage. He certainly didn’t carry himself with the ego of a media mogul, a hip-hop superstar or CEO. Obviously the power was there, but everything from his production to his stage banter was simple. You could imagine how the Kanye West concert would have played out if it had taken place a few weeks earlier — props, masks, actors, drama and any other ploy to distract from the music. No, Jay Z doesn’t need to care about such things. It’s a gesture of confidence — something Jay doesn’t lack.
And confidence was the key to Jay Z’s show on Monday — confidence in his unyielding arsenal of hits, in his own star-power and phenomenal backing musicians. Leaning heavily on material from his new album, Jay Z smartly peppered in his past hits with the new tracks, which didn’t get the most enthusiastic response from the crowd. An early-ish “99 Problems” ignited the Pepsi Center, those chunky guitar riffs and the heavy drum beat executed perfectly with his drummer, multi-instrumentalists and Timbaland. A decade later, “The Black Album” — like Jay Z — has lost none of its strength. From there he sailed into the similarly-minded “Picasso Baby,” but here, his hook didn’t quite catch, leaving the audience listless and jumbled.
At the mid-set break, Jay Z stepped away from the stage, leaving Timbaland in the spotlight for an unexpected highlight. The producer beat boxed and looped his vocals to create beats from Missy Elliott tracks and more on the spot.
Returning about 10 minutes later, Jay Z launched into a full-on assault of hits: “Big Pimpin’,” “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” — he didn’t need to tell the audience that, “I got a million of these.” Breaking from the mostly-white lights, the stage and front row (most of whom wore Yankees hats) were suddenly bathed in red light for “Public Service Announcement (Interlude).” Unfortunately, Jay Z’s endless hits and command of the arena couldn’t make up for the sound at the Pepsi Center. Everything was cranked up far too loud, making it sound like each instrument was in a constant battle to be heard. And Jay’s Vocals consistently were lost in the mix.
At about 10:20 p.m. Jay Z walked off for a second set break, returning in workout sweats and starting “Encore” a cappella. Each of the night’s turning points came with a song from “The Black Album.” Here, Jay’s band held out the refrain of “Encore,” while the rapper took his first moment to chat with the Denver crowd. One person in the front row showed off a collage of tattoos that featured Barack Obama, Tupac and Jay Z. “That’s good company,” he told the fan. Timbaland wished Jay an early birthday, saying “You’ve been there since day one,” before they closed with a series of hits that spanned more than 10 years — “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” (one of the few tracks from “The Blueprint” that night) “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” and “Empire State of Mind.” Jay Z asked the audience to hold up cell phones as he ended the night with “Young Forever.” It might have been a cheesy moment, but the sentiment wasn’t lost: Even as Jay’s face gets a bit more lined than you might remember from those early 2000s album covers, time will always be good to him.
See our live chat below from the show:
John Leyba is a Denver Post photojournalist and regular contributor to Reverb.