Jay-Z built an empire through a series of shrewd, calculated decisions. He's safeguarded his privacy and buried his vulnerability beneath seemingly impenetrable confidence validated by immense success. Beneath the facade, however, is an imperfect man. He's admitted as much at times in the past but never wrapped himself in this narrative until recently.
"4:44," Jay-Z's acclaimed 13th studio album, is packed with guilt, wisdom and messages of black empowerment with specific emphasis on legacy-building. Where his empire state of mind previously prevented him from revealing any weakness, "4:44" finds the 47-year-old unpacking and unlearning the toxic behavior that's inhibited his emotional maturity until middle age. Part of Jay-Z's allure is his perceived status as an invincible avatar for triumph who pulled himself up by his Timberlands. But as his net worth creeps toward $1 billion, he's realized that his most compelling arc involves his mistakes. Sure, he can offer super-rich uncle lessons on financial literacy that everyone — the black community, especially — may not have received. But after years of celebrating his peaks, his best move at the moment is to engage his nadirs.
It's a process that he's now made public through "4:44" and its accompanying tour, which passed through Capital One Arena on Wednesday night. "4:44" is Jay-Z's moment of clarity: his reckoning for past transgressions that's left him with a better panoramic view on life. His set Wednesday night spanned his entire catalogue because that variety, curated ever so strategically, explains how he's arrived at his current place, emotionally and psychologically.
The show followed the album's format by opening with the destruction of Jay-Z, the idol. Effigies of his likeness burned on screens surrounding the stage as he performed "Kill Jay Z," where he sets fire to the image he's spent two decades meticulously crafting.
Draping his leather Gucci jacket over the microphone stand, he took a moment to acknowledge the importance of respecting loved ones before performing the chilling title track of "4:44." On this mea culpa, Jay-Z admits to failing Beyoncé as a husband — even copping to the common male sin of only humanizing women after having a daughter. He wore the shame of nearly sabotaging his marriage (and having his children eventually learn why) on his face throughout the performance.
"It doesn't get easier, but it gets better," he said, referring to each performance of the song.
It's no accident that the song was included in the same mini-set as 1999's "Big Pimpin' " — yacht rap at its misogynistic peak. But again, this tour, and this stretch of Jay-Z's career, is about him steamrolling the idea of Jay-Z and meeting his audience where they're at. So the stage, which initially placed him on a perch high above, was lowered to bring him just above the floor-level seats during performances of beloved B-sides like "Jigga My N----" and hits such as "I Just Wanna Love U," which was immediately followed by "Public Service Announcement (Interlude)."
Jay-Z's construction of the set list was intuitive. "Lucifer" followed "D'Evils." "Allure," where he exalted the thrill of illegal activity, was blended with "Dead Presidents II," where he detailed "swinging for the fence" in pursuit of riches. His performance of "Can I Live," from his brilliant, anxiety-riddled debut "Reasonable Doubt," was exclusive to the District, but the sentiment is felt nationwide in light of the legislative chaos emerging from the nation's capital with regularity.
But Jay-Z's performance was ultimately about finding peace amid the madness — the world tragedies, policy-reinforced bigotry and racism, personal turmoil. On "Smile," he mused on weathering bad times to build a mountain of accolades, and his subtle performance felt distinctly touching as a single snare punctuated his a cappella reflections.
The night ended with Jay-Z's Linkin Park collaboration "Numb/Encore," which he dedicated to the group's lead singer, Chester Bennington, who committed suicide in July. "You never know what people are going through," he stressed.
Jay-Z's performance Wednesday night coincided with the publication of a candid New York Times interview in which he opened up about therapy, among other topics. It was also his first since receiving eight Grammy nominations, including album of the year for "4:44" and song of the year for its title track. "I will not lose" is one of Jay-Z's many maxims, and this most recent performance — like the album that inspired it — is evidence that he wins, even when discarding the body armor.