When “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” Jay Z’s 12th studio album, dropped in July, many responded with a grumble. The collection was little more than a bland, vapid celebration of Jay Z’s wealth, a tired, album-length rehash of the “riches” end of his famous rags-to-riches success story.
On Thursday, however, Jay Z confidently took a cue from a personal hero of his — one who also single-handedly packed the Washington Wizards’ arena even after he’d retired and then returned to the game. Critics may see “Magna Carta” as something like the ill-fated, out-of-retirement Wizards phase of Michael Jordan’s legendary basketball career. But Jay Z demonstrated — right there in the same venue as Jordan did — that when you’ve already achieved coolest-man-in-the-world status, a little late-career listlessness doesn’t make you any less beloved.
Jay Z’s Magna Carter World Tour, a spectacle as minimalist as his wife Beyoncé’s Mrs. Carter World Tour is lavish, wisely sprinkled just a smattering of tracks from his latest work into a set list packed with tested hits such as “Big Pimpin’,” “I Just Wanna Love U” and “Empire State of Mind.”
On Thursday, opening numbers such as “Holy Grail” felt like warm-ups, and Jay Z seemed to know what had to come next: “I think we can take it another level up,” he declared five songs in, and the audience promptly “went H.A.M.,” as Jay Z tends to put it, when his band (which included renowned producer Timbaland) played the opening riff of 2004’s confrontational “99 Problems.”
“I got a million of these,” he chuckled as he kicked off the greatest-hits portion of the show. And even Jay himself appeared to relish the throwbacks more than the new material, whimsically turning his backward hat forward at “I’m young and I’m black and my hat’s real low” and brushing off his shoulders (and arms and pants) in “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.”
So is this a victory lap? Certainly. But as Jordan fans — who effectively kept otherwise mediocre Wizards’ games perpetually sold out for two years — can attest, even an unnecessary victory lap can resonate with the public if your past victories still do.
Yes, Jay Z may now be 44 years old, fully absorbed into the corporate establishment, and a dad. And yes, the messages of “Magna Carta” might make him seem hopelessly disconnected. But Thursday’s show was a heartening suggestion that he is still wily, rebellious and fun.
During one interlude, Jay Z raised both hands in the air, then conducted the audience in bringing their hands down and back up with the beat. Then he slackened his motions: “Slow it down for the weed smokers,” he laughed, then informed the floor-level fans that it was time to turn this arena into a nightclub. Yes, he acknowledged, he’d be fined for causing chaos in the venue, but “y’all paid for the ticket,” so it was both the fans’ right and their duty to go wild. “All security stand down,” he ordered. “And that’s a direct order from the president.”
Those fans don’t seem to be buying tickets just to hear their hero’s latest work. Rather, they come to see an enduring legend — one who’s equal parts commanding and charming onstage, dignified and defiant in life.
Fetters is a freelance writer.