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Photos by Mike Ford
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JAY Z at the Air Canada Centre, Monday, January 27. Rating: NNN
As of late, hip-hop has embraced its artistic, emotional side: Kanye West's cinematic Yeezus tour rife with religious imagery, Drake's Would You Like A Tour? pyjama-party love-in brimming with feeling. This has been a great turn, expanding our notions of a genre.
But reigning king Jay Z is old-school. His debut album Reasonable Doubt dropped in 1996, when rap was still macho and manly as all hell. And, though his best friends and collaborators have embraced high fashion and high-concept, Jay Z is still the personification of traditional masculinity and power. This, too, is a great thing because he is 100 per cent true to himself without a drop of artifice or try-hard. He doesn't do trends; he's the nucleus trends orbit around.
Appropriately, he appeared at the ACC on Monday night amid shrieks and the opening sample of U Don't Know onto a no-nonsense, bigger-than-life set which consisted of a giant, industrial, Rubik's Cube-like scaffolding structure housing four backing musicians - including the legendary producer Timbaland playing DJ, wearing a Christmas wreath-sized gold chain - and flanked by a massive screen on either side.
In the era of multi-stage, complicated moving sets and elaborate routines, Jay Z is refreshingly no-frills and appears more comfortable solo than he did touring with Justin Timberlake in July. Not many artists could pull off marching from stage right to stage left for the entirety of a two-hour concert, and sure, it's a little ho-hum. But it's also fine because although Jay might not be the best or most creative or most envelope-pushing rapper anymore, he is definitely the most powerful and universally respected emcee alive. He exudes cool. And you feel genuinely psyched to be in his presence - among a number of local celebs including an injured (very temporarily, we hope) DeMar DeRozan and family.
"Y'all fuck with me heavy in Toronto, huh? I love you too, Canada," the heavyweight said at the top.
He's touring his latest album, Magna Carta, but thankfully didn't lean too heavily on its track list - not his most thrilling, but still well-known and beloved by the rap-along attendees. Grammy-winning Holy Grail, FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt and Somewhereinamerica were among the only tunes to pop up. On the latter, he chuckled through the "twerk, Miley Miley, twerk" bit before rolling right into Big Pimpin'.
These kind of transitions, inevitably from mega-hit to mega-hit ("Oh I got a million of these...a million I tell ya!") were some of the best moments: On To The Next One into Holy Grail; Jigga My Nigga into a left-side, right-side singalong of Jigga What, Jigga Who.
The hits rained down all night - 99 Problems, Dirt Off Your Shoulder, Run This Town, his Drake collaboration Pound Cake (during which he shouted out an attending Noah "40" Shebib), his Kanye duet No Church In The Wild. He encouraged security to stand down for three and a half minutes so everyone could jump on their chairs and lose it for Niggas In Paris. This being Canada, it remained pretty polite, with a few extra clouds fogging up the air.
But maybe Jay Z over-relies on the decades-honed stage presence and charisma just a bit. The vocal theatrics were few. There were a couple of high-speed a cappella verses and some voice modulation here and there, but mainly Jay's delivery was as no-nonsense as his stage movement. For better or worse, he is way, way beyond the trying-to-impress-us phase of his career.
At times, he struggled to get his lyrics out. Maybe he's lost a step. But something tells me Jay and Beyoncé didn't call it an early night on Sunday after his Grammy win, so maybe he was tired.
As Jay Z is wont, he was clad monochromatically the whole show, accessorized by gold jewellery aplenty, but each time he exited, he returned with a slightly different all-black ensemble, usually some version of the merch that was on sale outside. He half-heartedly faked a final exit at 10:20, but quickly re-emerged for what's becoming a rap-show staple - fan acknowledgment hour that even the artist himself admitted could be a little tedious. "It's like my favourite part of the show, it gets a little long I know," he said apologetically. "But I get to give y'all a little energy back that you've been giving me all night."
After the 20-minute interlude in which he addressed fans individually, complimented creative sign-making skills (of "Another Gold Sippy Cup For Blue" he said, "That was fast!"; he commended the comedic timing of the double-sign "My son's named after you" / "Play date with Blue Ivy?") and signed merch, he finally launched into a (literally) breathless trio of hits: Empire State Of Mind, Izzo (H.O.V.A.) and Hard Knock Life. And despite the lack of creative flair the show may have had, these moments are priceless, because you remember exactly what you were doing with your friends in 2009, 2001 and 1998, respectively, when the songs came out. And that is awesome.
Back in July, he dedicated the final song, Young Forever, to Trayvon Martin. This time it went out to Nelson Mandela. "Physical dies," Jay kept repeating, "but ideas last forever."