Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
On Friday, we attended Jay-Z’s performance at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, which kicked off the final month of his 31-city 4:44 Tour. The tour is a significant one for the artist: 4:44 is Jay-Z’s most personal album to date. While it’s primarily an apology to his wife Beyoncé for his infidelity, the album includes other serious themes, including his mother coming out, the birth of his twins, and America’s relationship to blackness, among others. Contemporaneous to the tour is the arrest of rap artist Meek Mill, who was charged with two to four years in prison for violating probation; Meek’s arrest sparked national outrage and led Jay-Z to pen an op-ed in The New York Times criticizing mass incarceration. Philadelphia is Meek’s hometown, and thus Friday’s show held particular significance for Jay-Z.
Despite the size (the sold-out Wells Fargo Center seats 19,500), the show itself felt intimate. It was a highly untheatrical performance; Jay, now 48, was the only person to take the stage for the entirety of the two-hour set. There were no backup dancers, pyrotechnics, or elaborate costumes (he changed his hat twice, and that was it). The power of the show was built entirely on Jay-Z’s skill as a performer, through his balance of deep emotion at some points and bright, bouncing energy at others.
Neither of us had ever experienced a concert like this one, even by Jay-Z himself. The simplicity of the show — from the fairly small, octagonal stage, to his attire of a simple white t-shirt and the home videos of his wife and daughter — removed the separation between the performer and the audience. It felt like he was talking and rapping directly to us, his snippets of conversation between songs as appropriate around the dinner table as they were in the packed arena. We were fans, sure, but it felt like we were more than that: we were friends, peers, therapists, confidantes. We mattered. At one point, an audience member screamed to the performer that she loved him. Jay-Z paused, turned, and laughingly responded, “I love you too. That doesn’t mean I’m in love with you. But I love all of you for being here, for choosing to spend your Friday night here.” It did not feel like a show that could have taken place anywhere, like a highlight-copy-paste of his tour-opener in Anaheim. It felt personal.
The arc of the performance took the viewer on a journey through Jay-Z’s life. The show began with “Kill Jay Z,” the opening track of 4:44 and a reflection on the pain he’s caused others throughout his life. Amid lyrical references bursting with emotion, Jay-Z describes having built armor from growing up without a father around. This image of having armor serves as a useful synecdoche for the rest of the album and the show itself. 4:44 is about being able to be vulnerable, about removing armor and opening yourself up to the world, and that’s exactly what Friday’s show was.
After a series of his more upbeat hits, Jay-Z removed his jacket (a symbolic removal of his own armor in front of the audience) and returned the microphone to its stand for his performance of “4:44,” the album’s title track. The song, so titled because of the time in the morning at which Jay-Z woke up to write it, is the artist’s public apology to both his wife and children for his infidelity. Jay-Z introduced the song as part of his personal journey to acceptance of his own actions. He admitted on stage that it was the hardest to perform; in doing so, he let the audience in on his own path to self-forgiveness.
The next portion of the show held some of Jay-Z’s most lively hits, including “Izzo (H.O.V.A),” “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” “99 Problems,” and “Big Pimpin’.” Even these were not without a message: Jay-Z restarted his performance of “Ni**as in Paris,” telling the audience to be full-energy, to not leave the arena wishing we had given more. “This is not the time to play it cool,” he said. The upbeat section of his set was an exhortation: to not worry about looking slick or impressive, but to be present and embrace the moment.
Integral to the show was Jay-Z’s seamless interweaving of the political and the personal. In the middle of the show, Jay stopped rapping. He put on a recording of Meek Mill’s song “Dreams and Nightmares,” and asked the audience to put flashlights in the air. After three minutes and fifty seconds of the entirety of the Wells Fargo Center rapping along to the recording of Meek, Jay-Z gave an emotional speech about Meek and mass incarceration. And after an appropriate amount of collective reflection, Jay-Z pivoted back to his own experiences. Through his lyrics and choice of songs, he took us on what felt like a tour of his upbringing in Brooklyn and current relationship to blackness in America. It was both the work of an incredibly talented, lyrically-gifted artist, and one who has clearly been around the block — Jay’s focus is no longer on cruising around in his off-white Lexus, so much as it is understanding the specific set of circumstances that afforded him, and not the rest of the men he grew up with, the opportunity to succeed.
The end of the show saw Jay-Z find peace, but not complacency. He introduced his performance of “Smile,” a song about his mother coming out, with a reminder to his audience: that even when things are difficult, they can never take away your ability to smile. This led into the melancholic optimism of his (scheduled) final song, the perfect performance to culminate the journey the show took us on. Jay-Z introduced the song, “Numb/Encore,” (a mash-up of “Numb” by Linkin Park and his song “Encore” from their joint 2004 EP, Collision Course) by reminding the audience of the tragic death by suicide of good friend and Linkin Park lead singer Chester Bennington earlier this year. Before beginning, he paused to commemorate Bennington, telling the audience that “mental health is a serious issue.” The song conveyed everything Jay-Z had been pointing towards throughout the show. Bennington’s lyrics (belted by the audience upon Jay-Z’s request to “sing this one for Chester”) about feeling numb to the world and trying to discover yourself aligned perfectly with Jay-Z’s serious themes of forgiveness, discovery, and the challenges still faced by both him and his community. But the song is not a sad one — thanks to Jay-Z’s lyrics and beats, “Numb/Encore” is upbeat and full of energy. It also captures Jay-Z’s message of putting the entirety of yourself into the world: he requests that we, for “one last time,” roar, for this final moment in the show release our inhibitions and embrace the beauty of the life we still have.
Jay-Z’s unscheduled encore brought the show to a close, pulling the audience back into his performance. His closing moments were based entirely on audience participation. Jay-Z started with the first few bars of one song — when he did not get the audience energy he hoped for, he paused, and asked his DJ to put on something else. He kept up this pattern, rapping a verse and then changing tracks to match the audience’s energy. It was a final moment, a final burst of unity between a celebrity and his fans.
Jay-Z’s show was one for the books. It was a perfect synthesis of energy and emotion, a trip with the artist through his considerations and world-view made all the more meaningful by his sheer talent as a performer. As he did with such efficacy on 4:44, Jay-Z made a statement through both his lyrics and his presence. He refused to be silenced, to be quelled; he reminded us that life is fleeting, that experience is precarious, and that we should do the same.
Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia.