Jay-Z and Memphis Bleek on stage at the Palladium. Click on image to view entire slideshow. Photo by Timothy Norris.
The irony of Jay-Z being asked to open the revamped Hollywood Palladium wasn’t lost on the man who calls himself “the black Frank Sinatra.” After all, it was 68 years ago last month that the uh, white Frank Sinatra opened up the venue, along with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and a thousand people to whom, it is safe to say, had an entirely different notion of the word, “swingers.”
Backed by an nine-piece band, including a three-piece horn section, two guitarists, two percussionists, a keyboardist and DJ AM on the decks, Jay’s career-spanning two hour set marked his continued evolution into hip-hop’s elder statesman. Indeed, 13 years after Reasonable Doubt, Jay seems to be the last commercially viable link to rap’s second Golden Age, with the audience split between long-time fan-boys mouthing every word to “Can I Live,” and “baby mama drama” aspirants ensconced in the VIP, gyrating to his abominable Neptunes collabo,” Change Clothes.”
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It’s tough to imagine any of his long-time peers being asked to open the refurbished theater; not just because Jay has to earn his keep after recently signing a lucrative, landmark 360 deal with nascent music behemoth, Live Nation, but rather that it’s difficult to imagine any 90s stalwart still capable of selling out a 4,000 capacity space. Blessed with the intuitive ability to balance the dueling concerns of the commercial and the street, Jay’s cannily been able to keep his career going, when artists like Wu-Tang and Nas remain stuck on the House of the Blues circuit.
The secret, beyond the obvious (sterling discography, brilliant branding ability, having the hottest chick in the game wearing his chain), is Jay’s inherent charisma. While the word swagger is more played out than Ed Hardy shirts, it’s tough to remember that Jay was essentially the trend’s pioneer, the first to value style over substance, though never at the expense of putting out quality product (well, maybe sometimes). And in person, that charisma is prominently displayed: the loose-limbed Big Boss-man strut, the plangent baritone, the unflappable poise. Dude’s a professional, despite an inherent goofiness that’s been successfully veiled, partially from the dividends of mass appeal, partially from the massive Aviators concealing his homely hangdog looks. It’s no surprise that Jay big-upped Obama several times throughout the show, as they both possess a certain indefatigability—the notion, that no matter what you say or do to them, they can’t be rattled. Or as Jay once put it: “I will not lose.”
So consider the Palladium launch a victory for both Live Nation and Jay-Z. At times, ol’ brown eyes shouted out his kinship to his blue-eyed predecessor, at others he cracked jokes, offering the Democratic nominee an extemporaneous bit of advice, about “the girl…you know…what’s her name..’you betcha.” To which, he lit into an electrifying version of “99 Problems.” Aided by Memphis Bleek, the intensity crackled with feverish pitch, the crowd alternating between arm waving and throwing Roc signs in the air. At one point, T.I. performed an impressive version of his verse from “Swagger Like Us,” punctuating it by telling the crowd, “It’s the King, bitch.” Which has a 73 percent chance of becoming my new favorite tagline (I mean, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter…Spray,” was just getting tired.)
Clad in a black Roc-A-Fella shirt, black jeans and black Yankees fitted, Jay’s energy level was high and throughout, he seemed genuinely thrilled to be there. Not everything was perfect: the set list hewed heavily to Jay’s more comparatively lackluster post-Blueprint material, strangely avoiding much of his two greatest triumphs: Blueprint and Reasonable Doubt. Still, despite the fact that his recent recorded material might not live up to his catalogue’s former luster, Jigga left no doubt that even though he might be a bit long in the tooth to be CEO, he remains Chairman of the Board.