Review: Onstage Jay-Z Forgoes Distractions, Drilling Down to the Message

Former US President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign rally in Newark, New Jersey on 19 October

“That’s how they look at you,” Jay-Z said. “That’s exactly how they feel about you.”

So much of “4:44” is about the power and urgency of black economic self-sufficiency, and Jay-Z’s conversational asides only spotlighted it more intensely. But though it’s among his strongest work in the last decade, “4:44” hasn’t generated a true breakout hit. It is an album of warm, gentle gestures, not easily translatable to a large space.

The moments where he performed songs from the new album were the quietest here. These songs gain their power from close attention, not ecstatic release, and would benefit from a more intimate setting. (This show did not appear to be sold out, with many seats in the upper level empty throughout the night. Also, on Friday, a concert scheduled for early November in Fresno was canceled; The Fresno Bee speculated it was because of slow ticket sales.) “Moonlight” and “Caught Their Eyes” were unbalanced and muddy, and much of the detail of “Marcy Me” felt flattened.

Often in the past, Jay-Z would end his concerts with an extended musical outro during which he scanned the crowd and shouted out individual fans. It was a way to make an impossibly grand night feel small.

Here, he achieved that effect, though perhaps inadvertently, by different means. He closed his set with “Smile,” one of the most serene productions on his new album. “No drums! No drums!” he told his band, as he began rapping. The mood was mellow, the room was decelerating.

After the first verse, Jay-Z looked around and snickered, “I have no idea how to get off this stage.”

After a few seconds, he sorted it out, descending into one of the pits, but decided to stand there and rap for a moment. Then he walked out of the pit and into the crowd, rapping all the way to the exit as hundreds thronged around him.

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