Review: Jay-Z, N.E.R.D., Wale at the Schott
Review of last night's arena rap show coming right up...
When word got out that Jay-Z would perform at the World Series in New York before hopping on his private jet and arriving just in time for his set in Columbus, I figured things would start as late as possible at the Schott and the opening acts would be dragged out past the point of interest. Well, Jay's big baseball moment got moved to tonight thanks to bad weather in the Big Apple, and somebody behind the scenes with power decided to go the opposite route, sending J. Cole out to perform well before the announced 7:30 p.m. start time.
At least, I assume J. Cole suffered that fate. By the time I showed up at 7:45, thinking I'd catch a couple Cole songs before Wale started at 8, Wale was halfway through his set and my window to take photos of him had already closed. Thanks a lot, arena time czar.
So I witnessed what little was left of Wale, whose performance reminded me of the Lupe Fiasco live clips I've seen. (Should've watched Lupe instead of Broken Social Scene at Lollapalooza last summer.) No backflips from our Baltimore homey, but tons of energy and a much bigger, fuller sound than I expected. He didn't perform N-word manifesto "The Kramer," my favorite song of his by far, which wouldn't have fit the evening's laid-back, celebratory mood. And I didn't catch "Nike Boots" in there either, though he may have spat that one before I showed up. Either way, there wasn't much going in the familiarity department. Still, Wale was good enough to have me wishing I would have watched him up close one of the times he came through town over the past couple years.
There was nothing up close about last night's experience, as I was relegated to the nosebleed section, which meant I had less patience than usual for the Neptunes' rap-rock vanity project, N.E.R.D. I saw the band headline something called the Sprite Liquid Mix Tour six years ago at Polaris/Germain Amphitheater. That was when Pharrell's great but somehow forgotten "Frontin'" from the Neptunes' Clones album was all over the radio, and on that night, the break from sub-Limp Bizkit sonic hooliganism for some refreshing R&B was more than welcome. In the same way, Pharrell and company were a lot more entertaining last night when they busted out the hits they'd helped hone (particularly Snoop Dogg's "Beautiful" and "Drop It Like It's Hot"). And their over-the-top Buckeyes pandering was a big turn-off. Better luck next time, guys.
The whirlwind pace of the evening resulted in Jay-Z taking the stage shortly after 9 p.m. to the triumphant strains of "Run This Town." Talk about a killer opening number — a gritty, grandiose pop-rap single about taking over whichever burg you happen to be inhabiting at the moment. The mix wasn't spectacular enough to spotlight that nasty guitar part that sends shivers up the song's spine, but it looked, sounded and felt like a triumphant entry for one of pop's biggest figures.
It also left no doubt that this would be an arena rock show masquerading as a rap concert. Jay rose up through a hole in the floor and performed with a live band in front of an incredible skyline-shaped video display that was often more impressive than the music. He trotted out tons of Blueprint 3 material that sounded built for such cavernous venues, with stadium-size guitars, sugar-rush keyboards and mountaintop melodies taking the spotlight as much as clever wordplay. Songs like "Empire State of Mind" and sentimental show-ender "Young Forever" (which caused the drunken OU co-eds next to me to erupt with happiness) accomplished their purpose of filling such a big space, but they couldn't hold a candle to the classics Jay trotted out so generously.
And generous he was. I was pleased to hear older hits like "Jigga What" and "Jigga, My N----" make the cut. Those late-90s offerings held up well and gave Jay a good showcase for his prowess as an MC, which, after all, is what he built his name on before he became not a businessman but a business, man. Snippets of T.I.'s posse cut "Swagger Like Us" and Kanye's "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" showed Jay's skills, too. The smash hits served a different function, conjuring a party vibe. Set closer "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" and encore bait "Big Pimpin'" and "Can I Get A..." provided lots of instant elation but evaporated just as quickly thanks to ADHD-proof shortened cuts.
I was surprised not to hear anything from American Gangster (love me some "Blue Magic") or "Jockin' Jay-Z," music that would have undoubtedly surfaced had this show happened six months ago. And I was shocked when the most electric moment came a mere four songs into the set in the form of "99 Problems." Here Jay's rock star ambitions, lyrical wizardry and hit-making power coalesced into a monster jam whose power reached all the way up to section 301. You crazy for this one, Rick.
One more thing that caught me off guard, much to my delight, was Jay's crowd-connecting friendship gesture near the end of the encore. The last thing he did before performing "Young Forever" (a gross 80s pop rehash that makes 2Pac's "Changes" sound as raw as an Eminem murder ballad) was spend 10 minutes directly addressing members of the audience, thanking them for coming and putting them on camera. After a show seemingly designed to feel bigger than life, it was a pleasant surprise to see Jay coming back down to earth and connecting, even superficially, with his fans. He may not be the best rapper alive, but he's one of the greatest entertainers in the biz.