He celebrated his 48th birthday Monday, but by Tuesday Jay-Z was back to business, bringing his heavy-loaded 4:44 tour to a nearly sold-out United Center and gifting Chicago with a marathon 30-plus song set.
Though the hip-hop impresario was short on special guests — a blow to anyone thinking the two Kanye West collaborations featured on the set list would warrant a surprise hometown appearance — there was still an unconventional sidekick for the night. A series of massive Goliath video screens took on a persona of their own, dropping from the ceiling on suspension cords and bending and rotating at various points in the set, creating an extraordinary setup that may be a first for a touring artist. So massive a technical feat, in fact, it led to a cancellation of Wednesday night’s stop in Lincoln, Nebraska, due to rigging issues. “I’m not going to half-a– it,” Jay-Z said in a prior statement about the decision.
Everything in the show — from the carefully designed rotunda stage to the highly curated flow of songs and stylized video montages (some including home video) — was the craftsmanship of a bona fide pro. Jay-Z is the definition of a mogul — running his own label, Roc Nation; organizing the Made in America festival; and taking ownership in platforms like Tidal (free subscription cards were handed out at United Center with every scanned ticket). But it’s his music where he is truly king. Jay-Z has been called the greatest MC of all time, with more than 100 million albums sold and 21 Grammy Awards to his name, and his 4:44 tour proves why.
His first road trek since the On the Run tour with wife Beyonce, the 4:44 tour celebrates an exemplary new album that is one of Jay-Z’s personal best, with an emotional awakening that surfaces on songs like the title track. “This is the most uncomfortable song I’ve ever written,” he admitted to the crowd, “and it gets more difficult every night.” (The song is about his extra-marital affair, which he finally copped to in a recent New York Times interview, and is parallel in context to the material on Beyonce’s award-winning album, “Lemonade.”)
“I wrote this for my family and my extended family,” he added, pointing to the crowd. “I owe ya’ll the truth.” Jay performed nearly all the other material from the album as well as iconic hits like “99 Problems” and “Hard Knock Life.”
Jay-Z also got political at times, including a direct reference to NFL free-agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick (“fists in the air and kneeling are not about disrespect to the flag but about injustice to America”) and asking people to come together with a message that “love trumps hate.” He also paid tribute to his late friend, Chester Bennington, with a cover of Linkin Park’s “Numb,” and by the end of the night he gave shout outs to Kanye “offering love and peace,” and to another Chicagoan, Chance the Rapper.
Chance made a brief guest appearance in opener Vic Mensa’s set. “Give it up for one of my best friends,” said Mensa, who is also from Chicago and currently signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label, as he introduced the Grammy Award-winner. It was one of the finer moments in Mensa’s set, which had a bit of a rough start due to syncing problems between vocals and the live band. The situation had clearly improved by the time he performed “16 Shots,” complete with an homage to Laquan McDonald and a reference to the Chicago Police Department, leading the crowd in an N.W.A. chant. Mensa later recalled growing up on 47th Street, saying he dreamed of one day playing the United Center.
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.
Kill Jay Z
No Church in the Wild
Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)
Run This Town
Beach Is Better
Jigga My N—-
Dirt Off Your Shoulder
On to the Next One
I Just Wanna Love You (Give It 2 Me)
Public Service Announcement
U Don’t Know
The Story of O.J.
N—-s in Paris
Where I’m From
Empire State of Mind
Hard Knock Life