Perhaps the loftiest praise Jay-Z could receive for Saturday’s prodigious gig at Bonnaroo’s What stage was that he didn’t miss Beyonce (who was spotted on site, but didn’t perform) and that he wasn’t overshadowed by Stevie Wonder (who’d wowed the crowd on the same stage a couple of hours prior).
Rather, Jay made a boisterous case that every major worldwide music festival should probably keep him on retainer as headliner for the foreseeable future. With his genial rock-star swagger, barrage of modern pop standards, and dazzling video fantasia, the man who once seemed on the verge of crotchety irrelevance after the ill-fated “Death of Auto-Tune” campaign, has now provided the star-wattage at All Points West, Coachella, and Bonnaroo in the past year.
His sly opening was indicative of the executive-level artistic care that sets Shawn Corey Carter apart: He crept onstage rapping the rather obscure “Intro” from 2000’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia as a nod to the other legend in the house: “Theme song to The Sopranos / Plays in the key of life on my mental piano / Got a strange way of seein’ life / Like I’m Stevie Wonder with beads under the doo rag.” Sporting grown-man black cargo shorts and Air Jordans, he looked out at the 60,000-plus, grinned and exclaimed: “Wait till I tell my mama that Stevie Wonder stuck around for my set.”
As his 10-person back-up group kicked into “Run This Town” and the immense New York skyline video backdrop started glowing and shifting, Jay-Z beamed, even acknowledging the What stage’s other opening act the Dead Weather by shouting, “Jack White, I see ya, boy! I see ya!”
From there on, it was jukebox thunder-hit after hit sent squeals of recognition from the crowd, proving once again that, at this point in hip-hop’s evolution, nobody knows how to pop the fuck off to a club song about flossin’ and hustlin’ like a bunch of drunken white southern twentysomethings who celebrated their first drink and smoke and whatever else at age 12-14 when “Big Pimpin'” took UGK to the masses.
I lost track of the times the white bros around me screamed, “This was my shit in high school!” as they mouthed the lyrics to one song after another, from “Can I Get A…” to “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” to “99 Problems” to “Public Service Announcement,” with its guitar-blazing, right-cross-to-the-chin opening-“Allow me to introduce myself, my name is Hooooovvvvv!”
There was a remarkable amount of tolerance for the repeated solemnization of New York and even the cornier new material-“Young Forever,” “Empire State of Mind”-resulted in mass singalongs with lighters, cell phones, and glow sticks hoisted high.
When the band kicked into U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” for the alternate version of “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love),” it recalled the moment when the transformation of Jay-Z into go-to festival eminence began: Glastonbury 2008, where he strategically responded to Noel Gallagher’s statement that hip-hop had no place at the fest by miming “Wonderwall,” guitar in hand, and generally crushing the unprepared Oasis leader’s credibility.
For a man who obviously needs fresh challenges, here was a new field of play. It appealed to his increasing love of rock and his neverending desire to locate new markets for his music. Now, two years later, he’s actually begun to master the form. Let’s hope he doesn’t think that he’s completely conquered the game just yet.