Photo: Ryan Olbrysh

Watching Brooklyn rapper Fabolous and R&B dance queen Ciara lumber through uninspiring sets before Jay-Z took the stage Friday night reminded me of the Bad News Bears, those hard-luck preteen ballers who can’t get out of their own way, much less help their team.

While Fabolous is no bumbler, he was a curious pick for a leadoff man (scant few hits), and Ciara’s set was no better, an amateurish effort (too little singing, too much dancing) better suited to an awards show than a concert.

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Which meant that the night’s success rested on Jay-Z’s capable shoulders. After the curtain dropped, unveiling a screen the size of 10 JumboTrons, rap’s reigning MVP sauntered to the middle of the stage, slow and exaggerated so as to milk applause. Up to that point, it was the most exciting thing to happen.

But it wasn’t the last, as Jay spent the next hour-plus in vintage form, opening with the new cut “Death of Autotune”—a broadside against artists like T-Pain and Lil Wayne who use vocal pitch-correcting—then running through his extensive catalog, with the less-celebrated bangers (“Jigga What,” “Dirt off Your Shoulder”) generating as much heat as the hits (“99 Problems,” “Hard Knock Life”).

Stars danced (songstress Rihanna) and pranced (assorted NFL and NBA players in the skybooths, NBA MVP LeBron James onstage with Jay), and fans lip-synched to nearly everything, one guy singing so hard he sweated through his shirt.

Good as Jay’s hits are/were, the best parts of the show were the unexpected perks, from the live band (complete with horn section) to DVD tributes to Obama (remixing Young Jeezy’s “My President Is Black”) and Michael Jackson to spitfire disses from Jay’s upcoming album, The Blueprint 3.

“Turn your camera phones off for 30 seconds,” Jay asked. He then flowed for more than a minute, tagging former homie Jaz-O and onetime Roc-a-Fella co-chair Damon Dash, leaving the crowd wanting more. He even ended the show in all-star fashion, recognizing individual fans all over the building. “You, up top, in the purple shirt,” he said, chuckling. “I get down like that. Thank you for coming.”


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