Jay-Z at Staples Center: 'I came, I saw, I conquered'
During the recording of “The Blueprint 3,” Jay-Z’s latest chart-topping full-length, the Brooklyn-born rapper gleaned something from frequent collaborator Kanye West: how to transform album tracks into arena-sized epics. In front of a sold-out Staples Center crowd on Friday night and backed by a 10-piece-band -- a three-member horn section, two guitarists, keyboardists and two drummers, along with backup emcee Memphis Bleek – the lyricist born Shawn Carter proved he could deliver a similar punch in a live setting. Drawing maximum response from the audience, he playfully asked them to throw their diamonds in the sky and repeatedly thanked them for their support. He even sang “Happy Birthday” to a fan holding a “Birthday Girl” sign.
Jay-Z, the hustler turned rapper turned brand name as big as the borough itself, owned the sold-out Staples Center. “This is Sinatra at the opera, bring a blond,” he rapped on “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune).” And if the spectacle wasn’t exactly Wagner’s “Ring Cycle,” at times it felt like an egalitarian equivalent. A wide demographic mix of the infamously fractionalized Los Angeles was drawn to the 40-year-old rapper who has almost single-handedly spawned the genre “classic rap.”
Many arrived dressed for a Friday night, as though they were gunning for a cameo on “Entourage.” Models clutching Gucci handbags stood among tabloid fodder, Chris Rock, Christina Aguilera, actors in Affliction tees tailed by Barbie blonds and B-boys in baggy pants. A duo donned outfits honoring the 15th anniversary of N.W.A. founder Eazy-E’s death (Compton caps and Eazy T-shirts) -- a milestone Jay-Z neglected to mention when he shouted out, “R.I.P. 2pac, the Notorious B.I.G., Big Pun, Big L and Pimp C,” following an electrifying a capella denouement to “Big Pimpin’.”
“I can sell ice in the winter, I can sell fire in hell. I’m a hustler.”
Although he has boasted of his entrepreneurial beginnings on the street earning seed money by “flipping a record company from a half a [kilo],” Jay-Z’s renegade independent days are in the past. “I used to duck shots/but now I eat quail/I’ll probably never see jail,” he raps on "Real as It Gets." He’s the mega-star who two years ago inked a reported $150-million partnership with Live Nation Entertainment to advance his Jay-Z brand.
Dovetailing with his corporate successes as the former chief executive of Def Jam Recordings is Jay-Z’s consummate professionalism. One can scoff at the disconnect between his hood tales and his current stature, but there’s no denying his style, or his hits, as impressive a body of work as any rapper ever. From “Ain’t No” to “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” “I Just Wanna’ Love U (Give it 2 Me)” to “Empire State of Mind,” Jay-Z can fill a two-hour set with a keen, razor-sharp lyrical catalog memorized by 20,000 people. And that’s what he did, with his band teasing out the arrangements out to fulfill Carter’s orchestral, “Avatar” sized aspirations.
“I’m on to the Next One.”
Friday’s show presented the latest incarnation of Jay-Z. If his recent work hasn’t been as critically or commercially successful as his early output, it has been his grandest in scope. Other rappers have played Staples, but none with Jay-Z’s worldwide stature. Many have achieved mass appeal, but none have sustained it as long. He eggs the adoring crowd on, “I have 11 No. 1 albums.” But everyone already knows this, which is why they forked over half-a-week’s paycheck for tickets.
His only real misstep of the night was ceding the stage to Young Jeezy for a 30-minute interlude. The Atlanta emcee gamely attempted to fill the void, but in the process illustrated how difficult it is to command such a large crowd. Thankfully, a brief Ice Cube cameo to perform “Check Yo’ Self” appeased the restless.
“I’m from where the hammer’s rung, where the news cameras never come…where the grams is slung.”
The evening’s most poignant moment, a rare respite from the avalanche of explosive lights and flashing LED screens, arrived when Jay-Z delved into his back catalog, performing “Can I Live” and “Where I’m From.” The two tracks served as a reminder that despite his evolution, here was the same Jay-Z who won over first the doubters and then the masses since the summer of ’96. But as great as the original version was, it never could have sold out the Staples Center, or validated the words of “Encore,” the final song of the night, with the line, “I came, I saw, I conquered, from record sales, to sold out concerts.”
-- Jeff Weiss
Photos: Jay-Z at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / For The Times