Jay-Z's words conveyed a menace that his smile quickly deflated, his acidic rhymes sweetened by the knowing grin of a man who's not only in on the joke, but who helped craft its punch line.
"I want people to feel threatened," he announced during a show-opening "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)" at the Pearl at the Palms in Las Vegas on Friday night, where he kicked off his latest tour in the relatively cozy, 2,500-seat venue.
"Get violent," he thundered shortly thereafter as the song continued. "D.O.A." has chirpy ringtone rappers and hip-pop lightweights in its crosshairs (he's lookin' at you, T-Pain), and is meant to be a Louisville Slugger to the kneecaps of watered-down rap (this must have reddened the cheeks of Ciara after she tried to pass off a largely lip-synced routine as an opening set).
But Jay-Z's ire was delivered in such good-humored fashion, with the dude beaming like a spotlight, that it felt more like a celebration than a call to arms, as it was originally intended. And that's Jay-Z's greatest asset these days, the ability to be fun and fierce simultaneously, to smirk when so many others snarl.In Blues Brothers-style shades, a Yankees ball cap, and a black jacket, Jay-Z's attire was as dark as his mood was light. He was a commanding yet relaxed presence, ambling about the stage nonchalantly, a genial gangsta, rolling his shoulders to and fro like he was ducking some lazy, unforeseen punches.
His easy-going presence was countered by a thunderbolt of a backing band, 10 members in all, complete with a three-piece horn section and a percussionist in addition to a drummer. Together, they added some sweat and torque to pop trifles like "Show Me What You Got," which came buffered with hellfire organ and granite-hard drumming.
"U Don't Know," featuring an appearance by Jay-Z's longtime protégé Memphis Bleek, was enlivened by a blazing guitar solo, as footage of Kurt Cobain smashing one of his six-strings to bits was played on the giant video screen behind the stage. The breezy "Allure" was punched up with some triumphant sounding horns.
The band connected the dots between rap and rock by focusing on funk and finesse rather than brute force all the time, and as a result, cuts like "Public Service Announcement" and "Can I Live" became soulful, climactic jams. "We hustle out of a sense of hopelessness, sort of a desperation," Jay-Z rhymed on the latter song, and now that said desperation is but a distant memory for him, he doesn't try and fake it.
Rather than continue to mythologize the mean streets as he did earlier on in his career, Jigga's more preoccupied with piloting his ride down Park Avenue, the confident, image-conscious CEO who knows better than to pick at old scabs.
"This here is the victory lap," he rhymed at one point, and this night certainly felt like one, with a survey of Jay-Z's many hits, from old school favorites like "Can I Get A..." and "Jigga What, Jigga Who" to some of his guest verses on T.I.'s "Swagga Like Us" and the remix of R. Kelly's "Fiesta."
He also aired a few bars of material from his forthcoming The Blueprint 3, first instructing the crowd to put away their cell phones so that none of it could be bootlegged.
By the end of the show, the mood had grown increasingly festive. NBA star LeBron James came out on stage, mouthing along to every word, sporting black, Buddy Holly-style glasses.
"I'm young H.O., rap's Grateful Dead," the man of the hour boasted during "Encore," near show's end. "I'm back to take over the globe."
Or at least a few concert halls.