Jay-Z is helping out the NYFD and NYPD on September 11 by hosting a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden. But Wednesday night at a rare free gig at Manhattan's 600-person capacity Gramercy Theatre, the roles were switched when the city's finest, in full gear with oxygen tanks, interrupted Jay's set to investigate a fire alarm call.
It was a false alarm, but a perfect metaphor for his performance: the Brooklyn-born rapper was on fire!
Jay kicked off the show -- presented by MySpace and DJ Hero -- with a rousing version of "Run this Town," the catchy lead single off The Blueprint 3 (listen here). And over the next 70 minutes, he dropped a handful of cuts from the record, the final installment to his Blueprint trilogy. He busted through "Hate," "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune),"and "Venus Vs. Mars."
He was in a playful mood, cracking jokes, talking with the crowd ("come on, seriously, what's up y'all?), nudging Memphis Bleek, his longtime protégé and hype man, and even instructing one dude sitting in the back to stand up. "This ain't a poetry reading," he barked. "You fucked my vibe up. All these great people came here to party!" And when the fire alarm started going off, he simply doused a towel in water, wrapped it around his head, and wandered the stage shrugging, smiling, and laughing it off.
During the set's second half, Jay ran through his biggest hits, including "Big Pimpin'" and "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)." "Put your diamonds up!," he instructed the crowd, referring to the hand symbol he's popularized among fans, before ripping into 30 second verses from classics like "Public Service Announcement," "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," "Show Me What You Got."
The show's highlight: a rendition of Blueprint 3's "Brooklyn (Go Hard)" (sorry, no Santigold cameo) and "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," both of which showed off Jay's 10-piece band, a hard-hitting unit that followed his commands ("drop out and gimme more keyboards!) with practiced ease.
The man born Shawn Carter has come a long way from selling crack in the Marcy Projects -- collaborations with Coldplay, an upcoming "experimental" album influenced by Grizzly Bear, his own label, a guest spot on Oprah September 24 -- but he never forgot his roots: "I'm Jay-Z and I call Brooklyn home!," he shouted, tapping his chest, before the apt closer, "Encore." The crowd, wherever they were from, approved.