DALLAS It’s been a hard knock year for Jay Z.
Stumbling from backlash surrounding the app (tied by a lucrative deal with Samsung) to his ho-hum new record, Magna Carta ... Holy Grail, still smarting from controversy over a trip to Cuba with his wife Beyonce in April and reeling from fall-out with a Barney’s partnership tainted by allegations of the high-end store racially profiling customers, Jay Z even took some lumps from the art world cognoscenti when he performed the track Picasso Baby for six straight hours at a New York gallery.
But like so much dirt off his shoulders, Jay Z didn’t appear the least perturbed during his Saturday set at American Airlines Center.
Goading a near-frenzied crowd into sheer ecstasy — “We’re going to turn this into a legendary night!” he shouted, not long after arriving — the 44-year-old MC stalked his austere stage for nearly two hours, working up a sweat like the hungry young hustler he once was.
Although Magna Carta is largely a dud on record, Jay Z contains its turgid tendencies in concert, and wisely limits its exposure to the first half of the evening (the night was split in two by a brief interlude, where producer Timbaland, a member of Jay Z’s backing band, performed a five-minute DJ set).
Tracks like Picasso Baby, Holy Grail or Tom Ford were enlivened by the audience’s rowdy response, but they still don’t spark to life the way other, better songs in his catalog do.
Which is precisely what the second half of the evening was devoted to: the hits and almost nothing but.
Just prior to N---- in Paris, a stand-out cut from Jay Z’s 2011 collaboration with Kanye West, Watch the Throne, the rapper told security to “stand down” as he wanted the floor crowd to spill into the aisles and go crazy. (They did so, happily.)
The moment was like lighting a fuse, and from there, the set built up an incredible head of steam, so much so that the encore, stacked with classics like, well, Encore, Empire State of Mind and Izzo (H.O.V.A.) almost felt like an afterthought.
Nearing his mid-40s, Jay Z can still stop the beat dead and breathlessly spit bars, leaving crowds in awe, like watching a high wire walker dart between skyscrapers. He appeared genuinely appreciative of the room’s enthusiasm, grinning and throwing himself into every song, no matter the vintage.
But, just maybe, all of the weight of being a high-profile, superstar celebrity is nibbling around the edges of Jay Z’s empire. One needed only to glance at the high-def video screens flanking the intricate stage with its bars, beams of light and band members positioned just so.
On those screens flickered images of surveillance footage, redacted documents and multiple camera feeds showing simultaneous angles of the stage and the arena — paranoid, shifty visuals suggested he who is always being watched (by paparazzi) is goosing his good times with a sober reminder that we, the audience, aren’t exactly free from scrutiny either.
Or perhaps it’s just meant as empty, arbitrary art-pop provocation, a gesture towards a discussion Jay Z doesn’t feel like having, skating a line between impudent and interesting.
After all, looking at the man calmly dazzling the room with rhymes, charm and sweat, it seemed, despite Jay Z’s 99 problems over the last 12 months, being complacent ain’t one.