"Take a look around," commanded Jay-Z, as he brought the house lights up on the 42,000 gathered fans Thursday night at Detroit's Comerica Park. "This is hip-hop!"
He was mid-way through a set of hits that played like the soundtrack to pop's last decade. The crowd was coming up on its buzz and Shawn Carter's infectious grin was beaming. This was, indeed, hip-hop's night. The first in a four-concert "home-and-home" set from the genre's biggest names-Jay-Z and Eminem. For Jay-Z, it was a chance to cement his status as music's kingmaker. For Eminem, it was a homecoming on the grandest scale-and his shot at proving himself after a tumultuous and dark couple of years.
Both men stepped up huge with a one-two punch of sets that over four hours encapsulated the hip-hop flavors of their cities and pop music in general.For his part, Jay was at ease delivering a catalog of career-spanning crowd-pleasers from "The Dynasty" to "Hard Knock Life" to a majestic "Empire State of Mind."
Jay and guest Young Jeezy stalked the stage, bantering like high school pals, backed by an orchestra-sized live band that Jay commanded with a conductor's subtle touch. The multimedia display on the massive three-sectioned oblong monitors behind him delivered visuals that would make Pink Floyd hang their head in shame and downtown Tokyo proud.
Jay is, simply, a rock star. At one point pausing to "Take off my sunnys, I need to know who I'm rockin' out with tonight" before pointing out specific people in the audience, giving them a "I see you there, with the Mexican flag," "I see you with the Recovery t-shirt. We made some money on merch tonight!" Maybe it's just the big guileless eyes behind those "sunnys" but it felt genuinely personal-even on this massive stage."I appreciate y'all singing 'New York' at the top of your lungs at the Tigers' stadium," grinned Jay just before he gave up the stage and set the crowd to buzzing about the spectacle of his set and the prospect for Em's.
A wirey, amped up, and twitching Eminem burst onstage in a black hoodie, like a boxer about to throw down. Eminem entered his ring to the "Recovery" track "Won't Back Down." Turns out it was a declaration for the evening. His own backing band was positioned atop a set constructed from the grilles of smashed hoopties.
"Did you miss me Detroit? Cuz I sure missed you."
This was Eminem's night, after all was said and done. Where Jay put on a full-on polished show, Em hosted a loose cannon revue and seemed to enjoy every minute of it. He's made clear that he's through with the "game" element of hip-hop. And Thursday he let it be known what that looked like, opening up his biggest stage to performances from past and present collaborators, including homeboys D12, 50 Cent, and hip-hop's newest prince, Drake.
You know you're in the presence of something special when even a bona fide hip-hop godfather like 50 Cent comes off as the evening's only filler. 50 and Em paired on "Patiently Waiting," and Em let 50 and Nate Dogg take center stage on "In Da Club."
But where 50 felt rote, Drake's guest spot felt organic, lively, and at times competitive, as he and Em both stepped up battle-ready for their verses.
And the guest appearance later in the set by mentor Dr. Dre, was pure celebration. Dre came on to much bombast, delivered tight rhymes with energy to burn, and split while the crowd was peaking. On "G Thang" Em showed his chops with spot-on Snoop flow on the track. Em, clearly giddy at this point simply asked the crowd "Do we love you or what?!"
His live band brought an absolutely huge, rocking arrangement to familiar hits like "Cleaning Out My Closet" and a ballsy, tight energy to "Stan." During the latter, there was an inspired alchemy happening between the live band, 40,000 screaming people, and one dude spitting the ferocious rhymes live and just killing the hyper-articulate verses.
Of course, there were lighter moments, too. During "White Trash Party"-the hilarious homage to the trailer park lifestyle from Recovery-the massive video monitors ran a catalog of "tramp stamps" that could very well have been taken live on-site.
And when Em brought on the D12 crew-the group he shared with his fallen mentor Proof and with whom he came up in Detroit's underground hip-hop scene-he took the entire joint down the basement of the Shelter with him. This was pure, chaotic, and rough Detroit hip-hop with emcees trading leads so fast the soundman couldn't keep up.
This segment of the homecoming party ended with the D12 jam "My Band," punctuated by fireworks, a big-screen close up of rapper Bizarre's Proof tattoo on his giant belly, and a festive-yet-reverent Em demanding the crowd "give it up for the real lead singer of this band: Proof!"
Then Jay hit the stage, and he and Em ripped into a ferocious take on their 2001 track "Renegade."
By the time Eminem closed his set with the powerful statement of clean and sober purpose, "Not Afraid," the hands were waving, the whole joint was sweat-soaked, and the fireworks display that capped the song felt well-earned, not cheesy.
And before you could say "8 Mile," the lights came up blue over that pile of hoopties and the band launched into the opening chords of "Lose Yourself." And the crowd lost it. By this time (past the city's midnight curfew), it was clear that Eminem had more than seized this moment.