Live: Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige Come Home
Jay-Z + Mary J. Blige + The-Dream
Madison Square Garden
May 6, 2008
So Jay-Z has officially entered the bourgie Vegas-glitz stage of his career, the part where he can happily, triumphantly coast on past achievements from now until whenever. He doesn't make music for kids anymore; he makes expensively produced grown-folks soul-rap that leans enormously on his own iconic persona. This is Sinatra/Billy Joel territory; he'll be able to effortlessly sell out Madison Square Garden anytime he feels like it for the rest of his life. Entering center-stage alongside Mary J. Blige with a massive dressed-up twenty-some-piece band behind him last night, getting the obligatory "Can't Knock the Hustle" out of the way first, he looked like someone with nothing to prove. Every past Jay-Z hometown show I've seen has been a staged spectacle of some sort, a deluge of surprise guest-appearances and headline-grabbing pyrotechnics. This one wasn't like that; it was the second of a three-night Garden run, another stop on a long tour. I've heard reports from other cities that Jay seemed detached and unmotivated onstage, as well we might expect. Since this tour started, after all, he's married Beyonce, signed an absurd $150 million LiveNation deal, and entangled himself in a bitter quagmire of a blood-feud with Washington Wizards shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson. And still he's routinely responsible for great moments like this YouTube clip of him and Bun B in Houston. Jay just might become the first rapper to successfully enter that classic-rock arena-staple zone where he can tour on past hits forever and nobody cares whether or not he's still putting out new music.
Judging by last night's show, he can pull it off. Even if his suited-up live band routinely cluttered up his tracks a little too much, drowning out samples and eliminating all empty space, his voice never came close to getting lost in the mix; Jay is the rare rapper who doesn't have to shout to be heard onstage. And as glitzy and expensive as his current stage-set might be, no show that makes room for "P.S.A." and "U Don't Know" and "Jigga My Nigga" (the three most dependable highlights of any Jay-Z show) is going to be entirely free of grime. And even at a relatively routine show like this, Jay always seems happy to be home; last night had that extra intangible exhilaration that only seems to happen at MSG shows. The big moments came, too. During a long segment where Jay played snippets of past hits, Beyonce danced across the stage, never touching a microphone and departing after like twenty seconds. (She was Jay's only surprise guest all night, unless Memphis Bleek counts, which he absolutely doesn't.) And during "Blue Magic," Jay stopped on the "fuck Bush" part, did the first verse of "Minority Report" a capella, and then flashed Bush's scrunched-up face on the screen behind it so everyone could boo and throw middle fingers at it. When that ended, he said, "I think it's time for a change, don't you?" as the screen behind him showed Barack Obama's face. On the night when Obama may have locked up his party's nomination, this was good enough for goosebumps from me. But the moment ended as soon as it started; Jay clarified that Obama in no way endorsed him, said we should get back to the party, and launched into a spirited rendition of I forget what song. As long as Jay wants to keep stepping onstage and effortlessly breezing through his hits, I'll keep showing up.
Voice review: Amy Linden on Jay-Z's American Gangster
Voice review: Miles Marshall Lewis on Jay-Z's Kingdom Come
Voice feature: Elizabeth Mendez Berry on Jay-Z
Voice review: Nick Catucci on Jay-Z's The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse
Voice review: Selwyn Seyfu Hinds on Jay-Z's The Blueprint
Voice review: Kelefa Sanneh on Jay-Z's The Dynasty: Roc La Familia
Voice review: Miles Marshall Lewis on Jay-Z's Vol. 3 ... The Life and Times of S. Carter
Voice review: James Hunter on Jay-Z's Vol. 2 ... Hard Knock Life
So Jay's autopilot is better than just about anyone else's full-speed. But Mary J. Blige doesn't appear to have an autopilot setting. This tour is billed as a coheadlining outing, and Jay and Mary finished the show onstage together, but Mary's solo set came before Jay's, and I wondered before the show how a massive star like Mary might feel after being relegated to glorified opening-act status in her hometown. Turns out I had nothing to worry about; the crowd, from what I could tell, was there as much for her as it was for Jay. When her band played "I'm Goin' Down," she just stood onstage grinning while the crowd sang the whole song back at her, the same thing Jay did for "Big Pimpin'." Mary also had the most euphoric, unexpected guest-spot of the night; she brought out Method Man for "You're All I Need," and he looked ecstatic to be sharing her stage. And her show had a really satisfying arc to it, starting out with her smoother, more restrained early tracks before building into her gut-ripping screamers and then ending with a set of joyous uptempo club-jams that felt earned in their happiness. Mary's whole career has relied on that narrative, of overcoming hellish personal demons and fighting for peace, and the show neatly encapsulated it. Mary's self-help ambitions can sometimes make for moments of serious kitsch; on "Your Child," for instance, three actors came onstage to hammily pantomime the lyrics. But those moments coexist with flashes of catharsis that you'd be an asshole to dismiss. By the end of "Your Child," Mary was either actually crying or doing an impeccable impression of someone crying, and as she finished the song, she told us that "the system has messed up the minds of all the men since the Vietnam War." By the time she got around to "No More Drama," her whole face was slick with sweat, and she stomped across the stage and pounded the floor, uncorking those great raspy wordless wails like she was screaming at God. And even though breezier dance-tracks like "MVP" and "Be Without You" and "Just Fine" were hardly free of emotional force, they still felt like sweet relief after all those teary pyrotechnics. Mary didn't quite upstage Jay-Z; nobody can do that. But she came a lot closer than I expected.
Voice review: Alfred Soto on Mary J. Blige's Growing Pains
Voice review: Jason King on Mary J. Blige's The Breakthrough
Voice review: Barry Walters on Mary J. Blige's No More Drama
Voice review: Arion Berger on Mary J. Blige's Mary
Opening an expensive, elaborately choreographed show from two pillars of black-pop royalty, both of whom could've easily sold out the Garden on their own, R&B goofball The-Dream (I hate that hyphen so much) came off like a complete clown. Performing in front of Jay and Mary's curtain, Dream's whole stage-show consisted of four backup dancers pulling egregious stripper-moves and two basketball hoops with Christmas lights on them. Dream wore leather pants and put on a different hat and jacket for every song he sang. I'm not sure why anyone picked this guy as an opener; I can't imagine that even the people who inexplicably like "Shawty is the Shit" getting all whipped into a frenzy when it comes on. Dream at least kept it brief, doing his three singles and disappearing, which at least was nice; I couldn't take much more. Once this guy's moment ends, R&B will be better off.