JAY Z at the Air Canada Centre, Monday, January 27. Rating: NNN
Hip-hop has embraced its creative and emotional sides as of late. Artists like Kanye West and Drake have expanded our notions of the genre.
But reigning king Jay Z still radiates masculinity and, appropriately, he appeared at the ACC on Monday night clad in monochromatic black with gold jewellery, on a set of giant, industrial, Rubik's Cube-like scaffolding that held four backing musicians - including producer Timbaland playing DJ - and flanked by two massive screens.
In an era of multi-stage, complicated moving sets and elaborate routines, Jay Z is refreshingly no-frills. Not many artists could pull off marching from stage right to stage left for an entire two-hour concert - even if it does get a little ho-hum.
He's touring his latest album, Magna Carta, but mostly featured his greatest hits: 99 Problems, Dirt Off Your Shoulder, Run This Town, his Drake collaboration Pound Cake, his Kanye duets No Church In The Wild and Niggas In Paris. There were a few high-speed a cappella verses, but mainly his delivery was as no-nonsense as his stage moves. And, at times, he struggled to get his lyrics out.
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 (actually 20 minutes). Finally, he launched into a - literally - breathless trio of hits: Empire State Of Mind, Izzo (H.O.V.A.) and Hard Knock Life. Priceless, because you remember exactly what you were doing in 2009, 2001 and 1998 when those songs came out.
TRUST with THE DARCYS and LOWELL at the Drake Underground, Thursday, January 23. Rating: NNNN
If you were able to get into the Arts & Crafts-curated, Red Bull-sponsored showcase held at the too-small Drake Underground, lucky you. Dozens waited in sub-zero temperatures along Queen West only to be turned away when the venue hit capacity early on.
But once you navigated the clusterfuck of lines, the packed subterranean event was a fun, hot mess.
Latest A&C signee Lowell opened the night with a quick and dirty set that showed she has serious potential to outshine the country's other synth-driven alt-poppers.
Next up were the Darcys, sounding as emotionally charged as ever. While their instrumental breakdowns show prowess, the crowd responded best to funkier songs like the highly swayable 747s.
Finally, Trust. Robert Alfons appeared backlit by Rainbow Brite LED lights that blinked, flashed and pulsated along with the gothic electronic beats and the artist's dark baritone. Even without Maya Postepski (who's drumming for Austra full-time), and even when we only see his silhouette jumping across the stage clutching a microphone, Alfons can command a room.
KAYTRANADA and SANGO at the Hoxton, Friday, January 24. Rating: NNN
The unusually frigid temperatures and blowing snow didn't deter fans of Montreal DJ/producer Kaytranada and Seattle's Sango from shivering in the long line to get into the Hoxton. Though the two originally hail from opposite coasts, their recording collaborations have proven that they share plenty of common ground. They also complement each other as DJs, both opting to bounce back and forth between uptempo remixes and slow hip-hop rhythms, walking that line between Friday-night accessibility and deeper flavours.
Sango's opening set showed his knack for balancing aggressive club bangers with a subtly soulful undercurrent. He played a lot of his own productions, full of booming 808 kick drums and rolling hi-hats.
Kaytranada also relied heavily on his own remixes and original tracks, bringing the tempo up and delving into house vibes here and there. However, while the night was a great showcase of their studio skills, you couldn't help but get the sense that they're both producers first and DJs second.
AKUA with INVASIONS and LANGUAGE ARTS at the Silver Dollar, Friday, January 24. Rating: NNN
Montreal's Akua took the stage just after 1 am - the last act of Dan Burke's final instalment of the Class Of 2014, a series showcasing the most promising pupils in Canadian indie.
Armed with a keyboard, slick backing tracks, killer pipes and her bandmate's pulsating drum pad, Akua brought her soulful R&B to a full room that just hours before had featured raucous rock bands and their failed stage dives. Akua's smooth, layered vocals - think TLC and Mya - are laid overtop experimental synth electronics. It's a common device that she subverts into something fresh and cool.
Earlier, Invasions took shots onstage before plunging into their western-meets-surf-rock ditties. The local five-piece obviously love a cinematic buildup, filling each song with a climax and superfluous trumpet solos. The crowd was clearly feeling it.
Toronto was also repped by Language Arts, led by singer/guitarist Kristen Cudmore. Her vocals are usually the strongest element of the art pop band's sound, but Cudmore's voice lost some of its idiosyncratic charm in the live setting. However, she pulled it together for the title track of their upcoming LP, Wunderkind.