Jay-Z‘s unflappability is central to his image, but the first few weeks of his 4:44 tour have been shaky. There was talk about underperforming ticket sales throughout his first few shows, and Jay had to cancel two shows this month because the eight massive screens that are suspended above him throughout the performance couldn’t be set up by showtime. Tickets were on sale on Ticketmaster for his Monday show at Barclays Center in his home borough of Brooklyn as late as 4 p.m.
But Hov in 2017 doesn’t need to parry away stats or any potentially damning circumstantial evidence; he is an empire personified. His power is represented in the tour’s stage design: The aforementioned mobile screens—which fold and tilt mid-air in addition to having a resting position similar to a cootie catcher—felt like physical manifestations of Jay’s charisma, making the experience feel inclusive even for those in the cheap seats. The center stage itself inclines into a pyramid and flattens for Jay-Z to be near eye-level with his worshippers.
It’s ultimately about the hits, though. 4:44‘s introspective tracks don’t translate that well in an arena—even the black capitalist manifesto “The Story of O.J.” was met with blanketed warmth rather than volcanic cheers. Instead, the heart of the show was the setlist’s sequencing, which appears to have received as much care as would the ordering of an album. Jay pivots through his hits with an ease that’s almost psychedelic. His swing from “Kill Jay-Z” to “No Church in the Wild” to “Lucifer” during the show’s opening salvo and from “Moonlight” to “Imaginary Players” in the final third were so fluid you’d forget there are decades separating those songs. And yes—Jay-Z performed “Imaginary Players,” as well as fellow beloved ’90s deep cut “I Love the Dough,” a rarely-if-ever performed Biggie collaboration. There’s not a lot of rappers deliver who on the “This is for my day ones” promise like Jay-Z does.
The setlist is also thematically arranged. Separated by two video interludes, Jay-Z started off with introductory anthems (“Heart of the City [Ain’t No Love],” “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt”); stepped it up for his muscular, braggadocious hits (“U Don’t Know,” “Big Pimpin’,” “Jigga My Nigga”); and closed with his more motivational, started-from-the-bottom cuts (“Empire State of Mind,” “Where I’m From”). The final third is when he let off some of the motivational monologues and political speeches that have made headlines—Monday night was about the point of the National Anthem protests that have defined this season in the NFL.
Although Jay-Z was undoubtedly the star, he made it clear that the night wasn’t just another hometown coronation. His opener was his punk-leaning protégé Vic Mensa, who was dressed in red leather as he performed from the still-flat stage. He was spirited, but it was clear that the promising albeit too-writerly jams from The Autobiography don’t quite stick in an arena environment. Jay-Z’s own set ended with two dedications: “Smile,” featuring his mom, and then “Numb/Encore,” which Jay-Z started by noting the seriousness of mental health in the wake of Chester Bennington’s passing. After the final chorus, he stepped down from the plateau and walked through his people on the way to the exit.