Photo: Kelly Davidson
There was something about the way Jay-Z hyped the crowd up at the start of show opener "Run This Town" that was not only emblematic of his performance style, but of his general appeal as a performer -- a key to his likability. As Rihanna's sampled voice echoed throughout the rafters of the way-sold-out TD Garden, Jigga Man, having emerged from a lighted hole in the stage (Darth Vader-style), gave each segment of the audience a clear throated "Whussup!"
First the left side, then the right side, then the middle. The frenzied response he got showed just how much a "Whussup!" from Jay-Z is worth to people as cultural currency-- and how the man can walk into a room full of 15,000-plus people and get them screaming with nothing more than a casual greeting.
Jay-Z's popularity really is staggering, and in many ways it boils down to a kind of everyman charisma that transcends talent and effort. Sure, he has pegged himself as the best rapper alive, but so has every rapper who ever lived. What is unique about Jay-Z is his effortless ability to squeeze his wordplay talents into bite-sized gems that manage to be both memorable and hard-hitting. Seeing him live, with his hits strung end-to-end over a more-than-two-hour running time, you begin to comprehend the sheer longevity of his particular brand of hustle.
"No I'm not a Jonas/ Brother I'm a grown-up" he rat-a-tat's off early in the set in the midst of Blueprint 3 highlight "On To The Next One," and for a no-longer-boyish-looking 40 year old, he isn't kidding. All his career, he's maintained an authoritative voice of experience beyond his years; now that he actually has those years behind him, he not only seems more authentically authoritative, but almost, dare I say it, statesmanlike. Which might have something to do with his Obama connection, which figured heavily into the iconography of the evening.
After months of months of being bombarded with media reports of how unpopular our 44th prez is, it was kind of awesome to be in a stadium full of people cheering the man's very mention. At one point, the giganto-screens displayed a 2008-election press conference where Obama, discussing the barrage of criticism he puts up with on a daily basis, gave a visual demonstration of his need to occasionally...you guessed it, brush his shoulders off, leading us into an absolutely electrifying run-through of the Black Album track of the same name. The set was heavy with Blueprint 3 material, meaning that it was littered, lyrically, with allusions of Jay-Z's seeming chumminess with the leader of the free world. Whether he does indeed have "Obama on the text" (again from "On To The Next One"), it seems so surreal after years of rap's anti-authoritarian posturing to have a hip-hop icon so clearly enamored with our chief executive.
Of course, Jay-Z himself has never had a problem, really, with authority -- as long as it is understood that he himself is at least affiliated with said authority; that said, he also never comes across as vain. For a self-proclaimed Rap Jehova, he is still down-to-earth enough to make multiple shout-outs during the evening to the kids in audience from Make A Wish Foundation; he could also be seen multiple times actually noticing people in the audience that seemed especially into the music by giving them continuous mid-song exhortations.