Complain all you want about $110 tickets - Friday night's Jay-Z show at Rams Head Live set the bar for hip-hop concerts.
The rapper-impresario-entrepreneur born Shawn Carter came to Baltimore backed by a full band and armed with his vast catalog. His current mini-tour promotes his new release, American Gangster, but his sold-out performance sampled all parts of his career, taking those of us younger than 30 back to moments from our youth.
"I thought there would be more from the [new] album," said Ashlyn Weyant, 21, of Brooklyn Park, who won tickets from a WERQ-FM 92.3 promotion. "After seeing the show, I still would have paid for it."
At 10 p.m., Jay-Z's band took the stage and started the ominous introduction from American Gangster, his 10th studio release. The musicians had promptly moved into the album's determined-sounding second track, "Pray," when Jay-Z emerged from the smoke, his necklace and sunglasses reflecting the stage lights. The shoulder-to-shoulder crowd erupted and began mass movement.
Behind him, not only were there the basic guitar, drums and bass, but also a trumpet, trombone, saxophone, keyboard, DJ and three backup singers. The band added new depth to his albums' legendary beats.
The new album doesn't break much new ground. It is, however, one of few "concept" albums in the hip-hop canon. American Gangster has a constant thread throughout, which was inspired by the movie of the same name. It is also, like the concert, an example of someone at the top of his game doing what he does best.
After a brief freestyle, the screaming organ introduced The Black Album's "Interlude," and a swaggering Jay-Z boasted, "I'm like Che Guevara with bling on. I'm complex." Hands flew into the air. The energy escalated further with The Blueprint's "Heart of the City."
The guitarist paid homage to Jimi Hendrix's version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" before the band and Jay-Z went into "99 Problems" - smoothly interrupted by a break into AC/DC's "Back in Black." They sustained the energy with the ensuing "You Don't Know" but reined it in with a slow version of Jay-Z's verse from Kanye West's "Diamonds from Sierra Leone."
Calm and collected, Jay-Z controlled his flow as well as he controlled the audience while he bounced from one side of the stage to the next. He stalked the stage dressed simply in jeans, a black hooded sweat shirt and a black T-shirt. Even though the crowd was going wild, he kept his trademark cool.
After the sultry "Excuse Me Miss," fellow Roc-a-Fella artists Memphis Bleek and Beanie Sigel joined him for "You, Me, Him and Her," "Change the Game," Young Gunz' "Can't Stop Won't Stop" and "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)."
Rams Head Live provided a very intimate experience of a very popular performer, though sightlines were easier to come by on the first level than on the second.
Besides Baltimore, the brief tour has shows in only Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. The Chicago date sold out in eight seconds, Jay-Z told WPGC-FM 95.5 DJ Big Tigger last Monday. (He said he will launch a full tour next year.)
Jay-Z closed the main set by "performing" "Big Pimpin'," but Beyonce Knowles' longtime beau mainly left it up to the crowd to sing the lyrics, including, "Me give my heart to a woman? Not for nothin', never happen, I'll be forever mackin." He exited the stage, and the band continued to jam in his absence. Upon his return, Jay-Z brought the show toward its conclusion with a flurry, including "What More Can I Say" and "Encore." He was joined by his Roc-a-Fella compatriots again when he finished the show with the infectiously hooked "Dope Boys."
"I was hoping to hear a lot of old stuff," said Tracy Woodby, 37, of Baltimore. "I've never seen Jay-Z. ... Seeing him in a small venue is definitely worth it. I don't want to say once in a lifetime, but ... ."
"Jay-Z is a legend. I flew in from Charlotte, N.C., to see the show," said Tya Young, 36.
Was it worth it? "Absolutely. I would've paid more."
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