Jay Z at Xcel Energy Center, 11/30/13

Jay Z at Xcel Energy Center, 11/30/13
Photo courtesy of Xcel Energy Center by Joe Lemke

Jay Z

Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
Saturday, November 30, 2013

Jay Z has more money than you can fathom, more fame than most entertainers, and sits atop a number of people's lists of greatest MCs. There's nothing he needs to accomplish at this point, and the hunger of an upcoming rapper wasn't exactly there on Saturday at the Xcel.

Instead, his confident strides as a rap legend and his desire to prove he's still got it carried the set, which focused on his latest album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, but sprinkled in plenty of classics. Part of Jay's legacy is evolving a slower style with emphasis that made each line hit on a conceptual level, which was especially evident live when he brought specific lines to life by stating them a certain way.

Jay Z hasn't rolled through the Twin Cities since his 2004 tour with R. Kelly, but he mentioned several times that he should have after seeing how live the audience was during his stop at the Xcel. It was a huge night and the excitement in the air matched the size of the space.
Jay Z at Xcel Energy Center, 11/30/13
Jay Z at Xcel Energy Center, 11/30/13
Photos courtesy of Xcel Energy Center by Joe Lemke

Rap shows can lose something in larger settings, but Hov managed to make the night seem intimate thanks to a stage setup that was appropriately massive without dwarfing his presence. With flashing lights, giant screens that alternated between performance close-ups and artsy visualizations, and a band of live players occupying their own mini-tower above the stage, there were plenty of arena-level accoutrements to make the show feel as big as ticket prices imply it should, but even with all the extras, the key element was Jay's impressive live rapping.

Sadly, rap ability is often not the centerpiece of many hip-hop shows these days, but at the core of this larger-than-average concert was a traditionalist sense of old-fashioned skill. Jay's set was long and strong, and he hit every cue with an understated yet consistently pointed stage presence.

Jay's live band consisted of a drummer, percussionists, bass, and guitar, with the mighty Timbaland at the center of everything. The producer powerhouse got his own section of the concert to shine, showing off his skills with beat-boxing, beat-building, and even rapping over a brief run-through of some of his greatest songs from Aaliyah, Ginuwine, and Missy Elliott. It was an incredible surprise and quite impressive to see the master at work, creating his classics from scratch.

Jay split his set in two surrounding Tim's interlude, and eventually continued to an equally lengthy encore -- beginning, of course, with "Encore." There were some omissions that would've been great to hear, as there are with anyone with as expansive a discography, but the setlist was well-chosen and fit the space. My mediocre feelings toward Jay's latest material subsided when I heard it in the context of the giant arenas for which it was presumably written. Everything sounded great and Jay sold even the weakest songs with his powerful performance.

He followed up the line "I will not lose... ever" from "You Don't Know" with a triumphant "I told you!" highlighting that 12 years after the song was written he remains on top. He lingered on the closing line "Somewhere in America / Miley Cyrus is still twerking" from "Somewhereinamerica," and transitioned beautifully into "Big Pimpin'" with a knowing smile. He gleefully ran through Pimp C's verse on "Big Pimpin'" just for the fun of it.

He hit a portion of Kanye's verse for "Niggas in Paris," which he interrupted initially to make sure people were going crazy enough for it, because he and Kanye made a pact to never do the song without each other and so we had to prove we deserved it. He was very clearly enjoying himself and it made the show that much better.
Jay Z at Xcel Energy Center, 11/30/13
Photo courtesy of Xcel Energy Center by Joe Lemke

A good portion of the tail end of the set incorporated the audience, as Jay guided the camera around to various fans and shouted them out. As the band jammed in the background, he complimented people's gear, took gifts, and gave encouragement to young hustlers working in his image. It was a cool little moment of crowd interaction that felt real and not pre-canned, and people really went nuts when recognized. It's a challenge to truly engage an audience so large, and Jay pulled it off.

This was the best rap show of this size that I've ever seen, and seeing Jay own the stage without opening acts was ultimately better than a bloated bill would've been. He knew exactly how to handle the venue, the crowd, and his own material, and watching him soak in applause with nothing but a subdued smirk and a winner's stance was alone worth the price of admission.

Personal Bias: I've debated Jay with myself a number of times and I still believe he would've solidified his legacy better had he actually retired after The Black Album, but that's not to say he doesn't still sit among the greatest to ever do it.

The Crowd: Expansive, diverse, turnt.

Overheard in the Crowd: Lyrics to every song.


You Don't Know
On to the Next One
Holy Grail
Beach Is Better
99 Problems
Picasso Baby
Dead Presidents
Pound Cake
No Church in the Wild
Tom Ford

- Timbaland Solo

Are You That Somebody
I Can't Stand the Rain
Get Yr Freak On
Know Bout Me

Big Pimpin'
Nigga What, Nigga Who (Originator 99)
Dirt Off Your Shoulder
I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)
Niggas in Paris
Public Service Announcement
Run This Town

Encore : 

Empire State of Mind
Izzo (H.O.V.A.)
Hard Knock Life

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