Playing It Supercool, Jay-Z Sizzles Onstage

The rapper let his music provide the drama as he performed with characteristic nonchalance Friday night at the Rams Head Live.
The rapper let his music provide the drama as he performed with characteristic nonchalance Friday night at the Rams Head Live. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 12, 2007

BALTIMORE -- Jay-Z carries himself with the unaffected cool of an old jazz hand. No matter what's swirling around him, he's so centered and serene that he tends to appear indifferent. Just call him Jay-Zen.

Friday night, as the rapper strutted onto the stage at the sold-out Rams Head Live in Baltimore, the crowd greeted him like a deity, chanting one of his nicknames: "Hova! Hova! Hova!" As in: Jehovah.

Hiding behind a pair of aviator sunglasses, Jay-Z reacted to the greeting with nonchalance. Let everybody else scream and swoon; he can't be bothered with his own greatness -- even as he's telling you all about it.

"Best rapper alive," he declared during "Dirt Off Your Shoulder." In "Kingdom Come," he cast himself as "hip-hop's savior." Elsewhere, it was "The King." And: "The God."

Even amid the self-aggrandizing superlatives, Jay-Z always sounds disarmingly calm and restrained. His rapping style is measured, never manic, his words flowing effortlessly, without over-modulation. That's true both on recording and onstage, where rappers often sabotage themselves by shouting -- apparently figuring that raising one's voice is the key to a successful live show.

Jay-Z takes the opposite approach, favoring precision, diction and control, even as his music turns chaotic. During Friday's superlative 70-minute set -- which spanned more than two dozen songs, including many of his biggest hits ("99 Problems," "I Just Wanna Love U," "Ain't No Playa") -- Jay-Z was backed by three singers and a nine-piece band that included a full horn section and two drummers, as well as a deejay who contributed additional, recorded beats. He was also joined on several songs by boisterous artists from his Roc-a-Fella label, including Beanie Sigel and Memphis Bleek.

Jay-Z's steady vocals were wisely pushed front and center in the mix. (Nobody goes to a Jay-Z concert to check out the guitar player.) And he delivered certain couplets and a few full stanzas a cappella, in a near-whisper, which drew the audience in closer.

He stripped down the sound on occasion, too: "No Hook," for instance, featured little more than sharp snare hits and a brooding minor-key synth line -- all the better to frame the rapper's account of life "in the hustle game." And as he observed that one can hustle all sorts of things (drugs, clothes, music -- all of which are on his own résumé), Jay-Z had a request when considering his own legacy: "Please don't compare me to other rappers/Compare me to trappers/I'm more Frank Lucas than Ludacris."

The song is from "American Gangster," a new album inspired by the newly released film about Lucas, a notorious New York drug lord in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Upon seeing an early screening, Jay-Z was inspired to make a concept album based on his own experiences as a drug dealer in Brooklyn's Marcy Projects.

Not that this is a new theme for the 37-year-old artist born Shawn Corey Carter: He's long played up his street hustler's persona, beginning with his debut, the self-released 1996 classic "Reasonable Doubt." Gangster and mob motifs have become his artistic staples, much as they are throughout hip-hop. Jay-Z, though, has elevated the form with his vivid imagery, intricate wordplay and bracing honesty. He also has something of a philosophical streak, though he's still more hardcore playa than hip-hop Plato, as his music tends to be narcissistic, contemptuous, ruthless and wholly unapologetic.

"I'm from the streets where the hood could swallow a man/Bullets'll follow a man," he rapped in "U Don't Know." ". . . They say we're prone to violence, but it's home sweet home."

The details of his biography are fuzzy now, mythology trumping whatever actual criminality he may have in his past. But Jay-Z plays the part well, sounding credible and sincere in his myriad songs about doing dirt. It's work he claims he was pushed into doing by outside forces.

"Blame Reagan for making me into a monster," he rapped in "Blue Magic." "Blame Oliver North and Iran-Contra/I ran contraband that they sponsored/Before this rhyming stuff, we was in concert."

The sweet taste of success seems to be his favorite topic, though, as he rapped repeatedly about making it in the streets, in the recording business and elsewhere. He had money on the mind, and his mind on his mountainous pile of money, noting: "I smartened up, opened the market up/One million, two million, three million, four/In 18 months, 80 million more."

Indeed, the former street hustler is one of hip-hop's greatest capitalists -- president and chief executive of Def Jam Recordings, part owner of the New Jersey Nets, pitchman for Hewlett-Packard and Budweiser, owner and operator of the 40/40 clubs, etc. He's a self-made millionaire who flies on private jets, vacations on enormous yachts, canoodles with Beyonc¿ and wears enough diamonds around his neck and wrist to fill a Cartier display case. Forbes estimates that he grossed $34 million in 2006. Earlier this year, he sold his Rocawear fashion label for more than $200 million. As he noted during a downshifted version of his verse from Kanye West's "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" remix: "I'm not a business man/I'm a business, man."

As always, the words were delivered dispassionately and matter-of-factly. Nothing, it seems, excites the unflappable Jay-Z, the rapper with the serious sang-froid.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company