Jay Z December 13, Mandalay Bay Events Center
Kanye has his Jesus figures and pyrotechnics. Drake has his neon lights and aerial walkways. Jay Z, meanwhile, seems content to prove he doesn’t need more than his own talent to fill an arena on his current Magna Carter World Tour. Compared to the theatrics of his peers, the rap king’s Friday night set at Mandalay Bay Events Center was downright austere: Decor was limited to a tower of black scaffolding seating his four piece band, which was flanked by video screens and grids of flickering white LED panels. No backup dancers, no hype men (save for producer Timbaland, who helmed the keys and synths). Even Jay’s outfit was tempered, a casual black ensemble adorned by a single gold chain.
Not that any of it is surprising. In contrast to the super-ego spectacle of fellow throne-keeper Kanye, Jay Z has always been less about image and bravado than letting his music speak for itself—little trouble for someone who just picked up nine Grammy nominations, more than any artist this year. Effortlessly charismatic, the rapper born Shawn Carter held the entire arena’s attention for nearly 30 songs by literally doing nothing but rap. And that unto itself is Jay Z’s unique brand of spectacle.
From new tracks off of July’s Magna Carta... Holy Grail to a hefty dose of hits culled from nearly two decades of albums, there was a certain thrill to watching a legend stalk across the stage alone, as if challenging onlookers while casually delivering a career’s worth of hits, from “Dead Presidents II” to “99 Problems” to “On to the Next One, with all the ferocity and perfection of the originals.
“I got a million of these!” he crowed, launching into 2000’s chart-topping “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me).”
But Jay Z’s gift for hitmaking is a double-edged sword. A decade of pop collaborations, business ventures and now fatherhood have only served to further distance him from the street life at the center of much of his work. While parts of Magna Carta... Holy Grail deal with conflict over this elevated class status, its songs about jetsetting and art dealing feel less like genuine triumph than treading water. Live, his prowess on the mic did little to detract from that. While tracks like “Tom Ford” and “Picasso Baby” were improved with the added intensity of his backing band, even they ultimately couldn’t mask his detached delivery.
Jay Z is at his best when we see him relishing in his greatness rather than mulling it over. During a breakdown of “Encore” towards the end of the set, he commanded security to “stand down,” ordering fans scattered across the bleachers to come down to pack the aisles. “I need a little disorder,” he said, chatting nonchalantly with individuals in the crowd as his mass of admirers gathered before him. His swagger recharged, Jay Z took the set home with nostalgia-laced favorites like “Empire State of Mind,” “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and the Nelson Mandela-dedicated “Young Forever,” imploring the crowd as he left the stage to hold fast to its dreams—after all, the king of rap was once one of the people, too.