In a Plush Setting, Jay-Z Makes Himself at Home

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 4, 2008

"I've been to D.C. a lot of times, but I've never been here before," Jay-Z said with a smirk as he surveyed the stately Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Friday.

The rapper had just introduced himself to the Africa Rising Music and Fashion Festival audience with "Say Hello," a song about reputation and reality. As with many Jay-Z songs, it's also about the arc of his life, from a drug dealer in Brooklyn's Marcy Projects to a jet-setting, basketball team-owning, Beyoncé-canoodling hip-hop superstar with street cred and cachet to spare.

"I come from the bottom/But now I'm mad fly," he rapped in that cool, restrained voice of his.

As set-openers go, in this particular setting, it was thematically perfect: Once a street hustler, now headlining at the home of the National Symphony Orchestra, a magnificent room where the seats are velvet, the chandeliers are Hadelands crystal, and everything screams elegance.

Jay-Z made himself right at home during a rowdy, cacophonous 75-minute set that spanned more than two dozen songs, including many of his biggest hits ("99 Problems," "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," "Big Pimpin'," "I Just Wanna Love U"). Hardcore hip-hop had officially taken over the building.

Jay-Z's intricate wordplay was sometimes drowned out by a nine-piece backing band, what with all those booming beats, rib-rattling bass drops, blaring horns, swirling synths and monster guitar riffs spilling out of the speakers. (The muddled, overmodulated mix -- which also hampered John Legend's set of sweaty, pleading soul -- didn't help.) But when Jay-Z's band pulled back -- sometimes doing so completely, allowing him to rap a cappella in a near-whisper -- the result was striking, showcasing his disarmingly effortless flow and vivid imagery.

Mostly, his songs featured contemptuous, ruthless gangster and mob motifs. But there were also lyrics about the fairer sex, including his verse from Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love" and a freestyle set to Estelle's "American Boy," as well as some political commentary -- most notably "Minority Report," an indictment of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina. The song concluded with an expletive about President Bush and an implicit endorsement of Barack Obama, whose visage flashed on a giant video screen at the back of the stage, much to the delight of the crowd, which filled the 2,518-seat room.

There was no shortage of self-aggrandizing superlatives, either, with the cocksure emcee casting himself as "the king," "the god," "best rapper alive" and "the hood's Barack." The audience responded with sustained approval, as if to say: All hail the microphone-commander in chief!

It felt like a coronation. Yet, technically, it was a celebration of Africa, a festival of music and fashion that was somehow supposed to promote economic progress on that continent, particularly in Nigeria.

To that end, Friday's event -- the third of four Africa Rising festivals scheduled around the world this year -- was a failure, as the messaging was ineffective, offering little beyond platitudes. There were no powerful pronouncements from the concert's organizer, Nigerian media mogul Nduka Obaigbena, who simply thanked attendees for coming to "share this historic moment with Africa." He didn't explain how it was historic and neither did the Kennedy Center playbills that were handed out at the door, where security guards used metal-detecting wands to check for weapons.

Nigerian Ambassador Oluwole Rotimi called Africa Rising "a new opportunity to showcase Africa" and said, "African cultures are not inferior to the cultures from other parts of the world."

Fati Asibelua, creative director of the Nigerian-based company Momo, and Nigerian designer Deola Sagoe more or less said African fashion is hot after their respective shows, during which more than 20 female models walked the stage -- not least the Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek.

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