The lights dimmed at 9:30 PM at Brooklyn's Barclays Center on Sunday night (11/26), a stage in the middle of the arena began rising several feet above the floor, and eight giant screens descended from the ceiling until they blocked the audience's view of the stage. The screens started showing images of Jay-Z in his Yankees hat, then the crowd was teased with a clip of "Kill Jay-Z," the opening track on Jay's new album 4:44, his most acclaimed album in years. The screens then showed images of Jay-Z on fire, with flames burning out his eyeholes. Finally the screens rose, revealing the man himself standing atop that elevated stage, and with a bang, Jay-Z jumped right into "Kill Jay-Z." The new album is a bit slower and more subdued than Jay's music usually is, with more of a focus on introspective lyrics than on bangers, but Jay proved right away that the 4:44 material could be just as energized as his classics in a live setting. 4:44's "Bam," which was played later on, proved to be as much of a banger and a crowdpleaser as any of his biggest hits.
And Jay hasn't lost a beat when it comes to his classics. Anyone who wasn't standing and dancing for "Kill Jay-Z" began doing so when he followed it with Watch the Throne's "No Church in the Wild." And when the real classics like "Heart of the City," "Jigga My Nigga," "Izzo," "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," "99 Problems" and "Big Pimpin'" started coming in, Jay reminded you exactly why he got away with calling himself the best rapper alive in that era. No matter what you think of his newer stuff, Jay-Z remains a must-see live act because he loads his sets with some of the best rap songs ever written and they still sound fresh today. The late '90s and early '00s songs aren't dated, and Jay's delivery and stage presence are still at the top of their game. With his ace band, who played at floor-level pits built into the stage, the songs sometimes sounded even fuller than on record. His popularity and influence is rarely rivaled in hip hop, and he has surpassed most of his own influences in terms of star power. He had every right to be as boastful on Sunday night as he is on The Black Album, but he seemed genuinely more concerned with others than himself at the Barclays Center show.
It being a Brooklyn show, Jay paid tribute to his fallen friend and hero The Notorious B.I.G. by leading the crowd in a singalong of "Juicy." (It should also be noted that right next to Barclays Center's banner commemorating the venue's grand opening of eight Jay-Z shows is a banner in memory of Biggie.) Jay told the crowd that he had no business comparing himself to Biggie and Nas in the early days, but he did it because he was motivated to get to that level and it worked. He meant it less as a boast and more as encouragement for everyone else to follow their dreams the way he did. Before he played "Niggas In Paris," he declared his performance and the crowd's singalong a celebration of black excellence. He made it a point to note that the NFL protests have nothing to do with flags, and that they have everything to do with fighting injustice and fighting against the deaths of innocent young people who would've had their whole lives ahead of them. Before he ended the show with "Numb/Encore" in tribute to Chester Bennington, he talked about how mental health is a real thing and how important it is to pay attention if your loved ones are suffering from mental health issues. 4:44 showed the world a more mature side of Jay-Z, and his Barclays Center show on Sunday night proved that side isn't limited to the album.
Opening Sunday's night show -- and the whole tour -- was Vic Mensa, who recently released his debut album The Autobiography via Jay-Z's Roc Nation company. (It was mostly produced by No I.D., who executive produced 4:44.) Before Vic came out, his two-piece backing band played "Wolves" over the PA, the Kanye West song that features Vic Mensa. Then Vic hopped on stage, decked out entirely in red to match his band's gear, and proceeded to play a set that included his Kanye collab "U Mad" and a handful of The Autobiography songs like "Memories on 47th St," "Rollin' Like A Stoner," "Homewrecker," "Down For Some Ignorance," and "We Could Be Free." His band included a DJ/keyboardist and a guitarist/bassist, who really filled out his sound and made him sound right at home in the massive venue -- no easy feat for an opener on an arena tour. Vic was a pretty perfect pairing for Jay, not just for the Roc Nation and No I.D. connections, but also because Vic is a new school rapper who really cares about old school rap and he's the kind of guy who could win over longtime Jay-Z fans. "Memories on 47th St," for example, includes the lyric "bumpin' nothin' but NWA," and after he rapped that, Vic played the "Fuck Tha Police" intro over the PA and then led the crowd in chanting the song's title. He does also have some auto-tuned hooks that would fit perfectly on modern-day radio, but that just makes him even more like late '90s Jay-Z. He's got enough commercial appeal to cross over, and enough real talent to sustain a career.
You can catch Jay and Vic again at Barclays Center on Monday night (11/27), and then they've got another NYC-area show at the Nassau Coliseum on Saturday (12/2). You can still grab tickets.
Some videos of the first Barclays Center show are below...
Jay-Z at Barclays Center - 11/26/17 Setlist (via)
Kill Jay Z
No Church in the Wild
Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)
Run This Town
Beach Is Better
Jigga My Nigga
Dirt Off Your Shoulder
On to the Next One
I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)
Public Service Announcement
U Don't Know
Dead Presidents II
Juicy (The Notorious B.I.G. cover)
The Story of O.J.
Niggas in Paris
Where I'm From
Empire State of Mind
Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)