Jay Z, the self-styled king of New York, waits backstage just a little past show-time with his wife Beyonce and their improbably named, one-year-old heir Blue Ivy.
But any sense of royal prerogative is abandoned when he takes the stage. Where Beyonce’s gigs are budget-blowing athletic extravaganzas, Jay Z has only skeletal gantries behind him, as if he’s at a warehouse party.
His clothes and most of the lighting is black-and-white. A DJ/hype man, guitarist, drummer and keyboardist are with him, but could be reduced to someone to press play on the immaculately booming, ready-made sound of his records heard tonight, for all the real difference they make. It’s spartan, monochrome: a working environment that strips away the advantages of Jay Z’s astonishing wealth.
Regularly tonight, he goes further, breaking down his wall of hip-hop sound for bursts of a cappella rapping. It’s the bare, breathing sound of one man’s talent, preciously rare at an arena show. His new, twelfth album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, wrestles with the challenges of fame and celebrity family, trying to make them as compelling as the drug-dealing street life he left behind in Brooklyn long ago. But while he’s on stage, those contradictions melt away.
He draws heavily on the new album, including its two strongest shots of racial politics. “I hope my black skin don’t dirt this white tuxedo,” goes Frank Ocean’s biting line on “Oceans”. Then there’s “Somewhereinamerica”, with its old-school jazz trombone sample, and sneers at the “blue bloods” he now claims to be confronting, up in the ruling class of America where he’s hoisted himself. Whooping, police-siren percussion and images from the War on Terror pile on the sense of social urgency. But “Empire State of Mind”, his joyful, soul-powered hymn to New York, says all he really needs to about his meaning in America. This former crack dealer who has become a middle-aged, beloved entertainer is a walking satire of the farce of his country’s war on drugs.
He towels off sweat near the end, his rapping proud and powerful on “Hard Knock Life”, with its brilliantly dumb Annie sample and basic, head-nodding beat. He finishes with the soppy “Young Forever”, and the words: “Peace and love, Manchester.” He’s come a long way to be thinking like that. But the drama of transcendence played out tonight remains rooted, so long as Jay Z raps.