Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Live Nation
They say how you spend your birthday is how you'll spend your year. The first moments of my 25th were spent hanging over the balcony at New York’s Terminal 5, screaming along to Jay Z’s “Feelin’ It,” and I pray I spend the rest of my year doing just the same.
The context for the shouting was the second of Jay’s two B-Sides concerts in his home city. The would-be Unplugged sessions are the first of their kind for Jay, and instead of being powered by a media juggernaut like MTV, the nights were hosted by Hov’s own streaming service/media conglomerate/Illuminati association TIDAL. Although it was, in one respect, an explicit bid to restore some of the hype to a service that’s been roundly mocked by the media and that has struggled to gain traction, it was also a widely appreciated gesture from an artist whose concerts in the last few years have been so stacked with hit songs (and less beloved newer singles) as to exclude many of the gems from his catalog that made him so great in the first place.
For any hip-hop kid raised in the 90s and early 00s, Eminem was the unruly hero and Kanye the creative leader, but Jay was our generation’s true superstar. Growing up, I listened to him more than I listened to friends, parents, siblings, and sports coaches. For classic album after classic album (save Kingdom Come, even though true fans even gave that one a few chances), Jay’s lessons and lyrics billowed into my brain on morning and afternoon bus rides, and even in the hazy moments before I went to sleep.
Throughout his career Jay’s more than proven he’s the pound-for-pound greatest. In my mind, even as I found myself, like most Jay fans, defending him at one point or another, it was never a discussion. Who compares? His wordplay, delivery, beat-selection, consistency over the years—on any of these specific points there are dozens of entries in his catalog to back up his claim to greatness. Sure, he’s had some clunkers and poppy throwaways, and in recent years he has clung to fame with the grip of somebody who knows it’s a young(er) man’s game. But to any Jay fan, that doesn’t detract from his everlasting coolness—the kind that only people in cigarette ads display, where you’re being awesome even when no one’s watching—or his legacy. At this point, he’s undeniable. And he’s also essential. For this generation, Jay’s music is a time capsule to any number of memories. He’s been dropping albums for close to 20 years, and each of us can connect at least one of his songs to a specific formative moment.
This is never clearer than when you’re at one of Jay’s concerts and you see just how truly fucking happy people are. You could catch it in the B-roll shots from Fade to Black, that mix of people’s pure, memory-lane elation and their depressing knowledge that this might be the last time they’d see this man make nostalgic magic with their own eyes. At the time we thought it might be his final outing. Of course, we now know that wasn’t the case, as he’s embarked on a few solo tours and drawn up the tall orders of hitting the road with admittedly better performers like Kanye West, Justin Timberlake, and his own wife Beyoncé.
On each of those treks, Jay held his own as a recognizable star whose catalog of hit songs people knew by dint of living in the past two decades, but he was always outshined by his glitzier and more polished counterparts. And, truthfully, for anyone who’s followed Jay Z over the past two decades, recent years have often been discouraging. He hasn’t put out a great solo record in eight years (I’m looking at you, American Gangster), now raps almost exclusively about fine watches and finer art, and has often let his business narrative, whether with an album released as a Samsung promotion or with the promotion of TIDAL, overshadow his artistic one. More than ever, it’s getting harder to connect with now Jay. But last night, he reminded us all why we fell in love with then Jay. Last night felt different. It was an intimate and direct exchange between Jay and his core fans, the overwhelming majority of whom were only there because they won a TIDAL contest by creating the ultimate Jay B-Sides playlist. These were real fans, his day ones.
If you ever need assurance that your favorite artist is absolutely crushing it, seeing a room full of grown men and women strip down their New York cool to belt out bars from track after track like they’ve just been touched by the holy spirit will probably do it. It’s heartwarming and affecting, especially in the confines of a genre where the usual response to a performance is crossed arms and a warm head nod. But Jay isn’t an artist who inspires a standard response; he evokes something holier, more visceral. His end game is awe and ecstasy, not just passive enthusiasm.
Helping him accomplish that last night was the fact that for the first time in as long as I can remember—in both seeing him live or in public appearances—Jay looked like he was having the fucking time of his life, expending so much energy he jumbled his words a few times and looked dangerously sweaty just 30 minutes into his two-hour performance. If he wasn’t smiling ear-to-ear as his band cued up Reasonable Doubt-era classics or bounding the intimate stage in his black-on-black-on-Timbs uniform with the energy of his younger self, he was rapping his heart out while maintaining eye contact with kids in the front row who knew every lyric to deep cuts from ’97, under-the-radar anthems from 2008, and—somehow, already—the freestyle he had performed the night prior.
Even though the night was a celebration, Jay thoughtfully took a moment to offer his condolences to New York rapper Chinx, who was killed Sunday morning in Queens. “We’re being attacked like never before and we’re still killing each other, we have to protect our own,” he lamented, before breaking into his Spotify and YouTube-ribbing “freestyle” and transitioning to his timeless “Politics As Usual,” embodying his role as an elder statesman who chooses his words carefully and remains acutely aware of what the crowd came to see. You’ll never see a Kanye rant from Jay—in part because he is diplomatic in his self-expression but mostly because there’s so much damn music to get to.
Like Saturday’s performance, Sunday had some stellar cameos, starting with Jay’s backing band 1500 or Nothin’, who were led by the DJ duo of Just Blaze and 9th Wonder, two important figures in Jay’s mythology. The early 2000s Roc-A-Fella family reunited for a pair of tracks, as the crowd cheered on a recently shot Beanie Sigel and a kinetically energetic Freeway. Young Chris was idling in the corner, too. As the crew embraced during the closing moments of Free’s 2003 anthem “What We Do,” they looked reminiscent of 50 Cent’s newly reformed G-Unit, visibly older but clearly excited to still perform to such fanfare together.
Later in the night, Jay Electronica emerged like the mystifying phoenix that he is to perform his and Jay’s freestyle over Drake and Soulja Boy’s “We Made It” before blasting through his own “Exhibit C.” It was a welcome energy boost into the set, if also a reminder that, seven years after that song’s release, we’re still waiting for the MC’s debut album to arrive.
Still, the guest appearances only reinforced the fact that this was above all a Jay Z retrospective from start to glorious finish, with the now-45-year-old rapper firing on all cylinders on his home turf. By the end of the night, with stars like Future, Carmelo Anthony, and Travie McCoy still watching on in amazement, Jay toasted the crowd for fueling him through a pair of performances he said he’s been waiting for over a decade to deliver. Jadakiss and Jay Electronica snapped a selfie during the final moments of the show with the stage as their backdrop, a reminder of Jay’s sheer star power. Even his peers are his fans.
As the crowd poured out of Terminal 5 and into a cool Manhattan night, a deranged fan bullied his way down the sidewalk shouting, “No excuses! That’s what no excuses looked like! Jay Z!” Sure, he was crazy, but he wasn’t wrong. For two hours, Jay Z delivered cooked-to-order perfection to his diehard followers.
This weekend’s pair of shows may have been little more than a blatant attempt to remind us to buy back into Jay Z so that we’ll buy into his latest product. And if that’s the case, fuck it—it worked flawlessly. Because if you’re a fan of Jay Z the artist, it’s still life-affirming to see Jay Z the powerhouse entrepreneur perform “D’Evils” to a venue he outgrew close to 15 years ago.
Young, Gifted and Black
Pump It Up Freestyle
Streets is Watching
Friend or Foe
Where I’m From
Politics as Usual
Guess Who’s Back
Show You How
Jigga My Nigga
U Don’t Know
A Million and One Questions/Rhyme No More
This Can’t Be Life
Grammy Family Freestyle
You, Me, Him and Her (w/ Memphis Bleek, Beanie Sigel, Young Chris, and Neef)
What We Do (Freeway Cover)
We Made It (w/ Jay Electronica)
Exhibit C (Jay Electronica and Just Blaze solo)
Can I Live
It’s Like That
B.B. King Tribute
Star Spangled Banner (Jimi Hendrix tribute)
Public Service Announcement
Dan Buyonovsky changes styles every two thinkpieces. Follow him on Twitter.