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Live review: Jay-Z keeps his friends close in Las Vegas

July 4, 2009 | 12:54 pm

If that “new Michael Jordan” thing doesn’t work out for LeBron James, maybe he should consider becoming the new Memphis Bleek

Memphis Bleek is one of Jay-Z’s longtime associates, and he’s serving as the hip-hop star’s wingman on his few live appearances (none in the Southland) this summer. But Friday, during the first of two nights at the Pearl Concert Theater in the Palms Casino Resort, Bleek had to share his spotlight with the National Basketball Assn. MVP

Jay-Z invited James onstage about two-thirds of the way through his set. At first it seemed that the athlete, who sported casual clothes, Elvis Costello-style spectacles and some tasteful bling, would simply take a bow and gracefully exit. But no -- he stayed on, mouthing the words to hits like “99 Problems,” gesturing fervently and looking very much like he was longing for a microphone. 

He never got one. Maybe Jay-Z knows something about his old friend’s rhyming skills that it’s best we all not discover. (According to Entertainment Weekly, James, who has a guest shot in the rapper's latest video, did get a mic at a Jay-Z show at New York’s Apollo Theater in 2007, but his skills did not receive a critique).

James captured the spirit of Jay-Z’s current tour anyway. The unamplified but passionately expressive sports hero served as a mirror of nearly everyone in this lovely and intimate theater, the perfect setting for a night of giddy arm-waving and exuberant calls and responses.

Jay-Z shows are fun because the rapper is so adept at spinning liquid gold; his mouth is one of the most nimble in the genre’s history, and he uses it to present thoughts that are sharp, funny and resonant. Hits flew fast and furious at the Pearl, from radio staples such as “Hard Knock Life” and “99 Problems” to insider favorites like “Jigga What” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” Jay-Z also sampled from his remix collaborations with other rappers, including Young Jeezy’s homage to Obama, “My President,” and Kanye West’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone.”

He offered only one snippet of new material, which he identified as “the intro” to his 11th album, “The Blueprint 3,” to be released this fall. The rhyme indicated that the subject he takes on in his new single, the classicist polemic “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” may extend throughout the album; he rapped about fact versus fiction and the importance of staying authentic.

It was a treat to marvel at Jay-Z’s verbal prowess, undiminished nearly 15 years into his career. But much pleasure also comes in the fact that Jay-Z’s fans can recite his verses too. Though his talent is singular, Jay-Z also knows how to deploy it in dialogue form. At most concerts, audience participation is boring. Here, it kept gaining momentum, as in a gospel church service or an impending riot.

That’s not to say this evening ever felt out of control. Assisted by the gracious and skilled Memphis Bleek, whose vinegary voice was a fine enhancement, Jay-Z moved through his rapidly unfolding set list without a hitch. His big band, which included two drummers and a horn section, was the show’s other key element. The live players took the music in engaging new directions while stoking the energy in the room.

This is far from the first time Jay-Z has added musicians to his mix beyond the DJ’s and supplemental rappers upon which others often rely. He’s worked with hip-hop’s signature jam band the Roots for years, and last year he crossed the genre line at the rock-centric Glastonbury Festival in England with an ensemble similar to the one on this tour. 

As he moves into a new phase of his career -- leaving the label he once ran, Def Jam, to enter a lucrative and multifaceted “360 deal” with concert promoter Live Nation -- it makes sense for him to focus even more on his live show. That’s where the money is for artists, especially veteran performers. But Jay-Z’s obvious delight in exchanging ideas with ace collaborators makes his current live approach more than a good business decision.

He didn’t really seem to be thinking of business this evening, anyway. His friends were around -- he couldn’t have gotten James off the stage if he’d needed to, and he also shouted out to Rihanna, all smiles in the mezzanine; Phoenix Suns power forward Amar’e Stoudemire; and rapper Eve. He took a moment to remember Michael Jackson, and he thanked all the less-than-famous folk in the room too, turning up the lights to compliment them on their outfits and tease them about their dates. 

After a particularly boisterous sing-along on the “Hard Knock Life” chorus, which is sampled from the musical “Annie,” Jay-Z broke out that sweet smile of his. “It sounds so beautiful, don’t you agree?” he said to everyone. And everyone beamed back at him.

The evening’s openers, the rapper Fabolous and the singer and dancer Ciara, didn’t come close to the level of excitement Jay-Z generated. Of the two, Fabolous was more engaging. Rapping over prerecorded tracks, he nonetheless had a lanky way about him that enhanced the easy-going, hedonistic mood of his hits.

Ciara worked hard during her brief set, executing some impressive acrobatics along with her four dancers. But she also sang to tracks, and half the time she lip-synched. Her street-tough image is powerful -- she and her dancers wore ripped jeans and leather vests, like a sleeked-up girl gang -- but her delivery was unfocused, and she didn’t seem to be enjoying herself. 

Hers is the rare act that might be better suited to the impersonal environment of a sports arena; she seemed daunted by the closeness of the crowd in the theater, the very thing Jay-Z so effectively connected with later.

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Associated Press