More than once at the Smoothie King Center on Thursday night, Jay-Z bragged that he had “officially broken” the venue’s concert attendance record. That wasn't true, not by a long shot.
The official attendance was approximately 13,000, including hundreds of complimentary tickets. Bruno Mars played to a bigger crowd at the Smoothie King Center just three weeks ago. In February, Billy Joel packed the arena with more than 16,000 fans.
For Jay-Z, nearly a quarter of the upper-level seats were empty, hidden behind a black curtain. That obvious discrepancy alone discredited his attendance-record claim.
Certain rappers, like certain presidents, feel the need to exaggerate the size of their audiences. Even 47-year-old Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter, who otherwise professes a desire to grow up and be more forthright.
Case in point: He arrived onstage with “Kill Jay-Z,” the opening track on his current album, “4:44.” In the lyrics, he urges himself to kill off the old Jay-Z, the chip-on-his-shoulder Jay-Z, the egocentric, guarded Jay-Z who could not make himself fully committed and available to his family.
He introduced the like-minded “4:44” title track as “a hard song to perform. But I owe y’all the truth.” In it, the protagonist addresses his significant other: “I’m letting you down every day/Why do I keep running away?”
Such confessional soul-searching abounds on “4:44,” and Jay-Z performed most of the album during Thursday's 90-minute show. If he is to be taken at his word, it represents his current mindset.
He explored that mindset on an octagon-shaped stage at the center of the arena floor. His musicians, including an extremely hard-working drummer and percussionist, were stationed in four pits within the stage. They made the music more organic and alive, even if a muddy sound mix distorted the details, and even Jay-Z's vocals.
Four enormous sets of double-sided video screens – imagine four giant, partially open books, where both the front and back covers consisted of LED panels – hovered overhead. They tilted, turned, elevated and glided to fresh positions while showcasing home movies, live footage of the show and, in the opening sequence, Jay-Z photos being artfully consumed by flames.
The sleek, futuristic set evoked the interior of a space ship. But ultimately this was a one-man-show dependent on the considerable charisma of Shawn Carter. And save a few minor missteps in the song sequencing, he lived up to his status as one of hip-hop’s icons.
He carried himself with predatory ease as he stalked the octagon’s elevated platform or ranged along its perimeter catwalk, close to the crowd.
During “Public Service Announcement,” he ordered the venue’s security to “fall back. At my show, if you bought a ticket, it’s your m—f—building! You get to do what you want to do!”
He momentarily seemed to channel Travis Scott, the young rapper who is infamous for inciting mayhem. But the older, wiser Jay-Z knew better than to invite fans onstage, as is Scott’s habit. “Do what you want to do” only goes so far.
He sufficiently excited the crowd with more than two dozen songs, some of which were truncated. The strong cadence of “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” lit up the room. The lyrics to his classic “99 Problems” scrolled on the floating video walls. “Big Pimpin’” also earned a big response.
Momentum stalled with “Dead Presidents II” and the brief instrumental jam that followed. More than a few fans remained seated through “Moonlight,” a chill track from “4:44.”
“The Story of O.J.,” another new track, was accompanied by a black-and-white video that played on Little Black Sambo stereotypes. Jay-Z followed up with a brief speech about social injustice: “It’s not a black and white issue. It’s a human issue.” Athletes who kneel during the national anthem “are not disrespecting the flag,” he continued. “We want to bring attention to justice.” He resumed rapping a cappella, before the band jumped in again.
“Empire State of Mind,” with its homerun hook courtesy of Alicia Keys, inspired a singalong. The church keyboards of “Smile,” a rare example of a rapper rhyming “lesbian” and “thespian” while referring to his own mother, felt like an altar call. He dedicated the final “Numb/Encore,” recorded as a collaboration with Linkin Park, to the rock band’s recently deceased singer, Chester Bennington.
With that, he strolled through the audience, his security escort loose enough to allow for plenty of high-fives along the way. The less-than-capacity crowd didn't fill the room, but the more mature Jay-Z did.