Jay Z Entrances L.A. Crowd, Despite By-the-Numbers Set at Staples Center: Concert Review

Jay-Z Staples Center - P 2013
Chris Godley

Jay-Z Staples Center - P 2013

The rapper proves that he's truly too big to fail by engaging a Los Angeles crowd with a mediocre show.

Who is Jay Z? Everyone knows the backstory -- the Brooklyn drug dealer turned rap mogul turned business tycoon, but watching Monday night’s performance before a capacity crowd at Los Angeles' Staples Center, it’s difficult to assess where exactly Shawn Carter stands in 2013.

Is he a vegan rapper overly besotted with performance art stunts and collecting enough fine art to open his own Guggenheim satellite branch? Is he the pioneer of app-rap who negotiated a deal with Samsung so that this summer’s Magna Carta … Holy Grail went gold before its official release? Is he the sports agent who helped shepherd Robinson Cano to the Seattle Mariners for $240 million? Is he the new Bono circa the ZooTV era or the arena-friendly Coldplay? Is he the Barney’s shopping apotheosis of gilded post-Bloomberg New York? Or is he still, “Ya Boy,” the one from the blocks where the hummers are rung and news cameras never come?

There’s a little bit of Jay Z in each of these sprawling archetypes. Yet in his quest to be all things to all people, there’s something chameleon-like in his ability to navigate existence. It’s evidence of his brilliance, but also of the burnished emptiness that characterizes much of his recent solo material. But none of this mattered to the rapturous, selfie-snapping masses making “Roc” diamond signs with their hands. They wanted hits, and, as Jay Z, told them: “I’ve got a million of them.”

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If you ever wanted to participate in a 100-minute rap karaoke of Jay Z’s greatest hits, this concert was for you. Few hits were spared. The litany included: “On to the Next One,” “I Just Wanna Love U,” “Clique,” “99 Problems,” “Tom Ford,” “Empire State of Mind” and “Big Pimpin.” He performed the latter while strutting in a black leather snapback hat, hypnotically coruscating gold chains and a custom-made Tom Ford jersey, before flashing jumbo screens of a nude Ancient Greek goddess statue. This was all ostensibly to perplex the ghost of his late collaborator, Pimp C

He playfully reprimanded the crowd for being too polite: “Y’all can dance in the aisles if you want … If you wanna stand in your seat, you can. I give you permission tonight.” The latter words lingered like an imperial fiat. If there was a problem with the performance, it might have been the polity that he maligned. He was cool to the point of being unemotional. It was Jay-Z by numbers -- fitting for a man who raps, “Numbers don’t lie, check the scoreboard.”

The set list was numbingly identical to the one that he’s performed each night of his tour. The lone exception: an enthralling interlude where Timbaland did live remixes of “Are You That Somebody,” “The Rain” and “Pony.” Toward the end of the show, the Brooklyn oligarch brought out Chris Martin of Coldplay to croon the hook on The Blueprint’s “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love). The response was predictably explosive, but the cameo seemed more oriented toward eliciting a reaction than improving the song. Even Martin would inevitably agree that he’s no Bobby “Blue” Bland.

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Jay Z is as consummately professional as the Davos types that he hob-knobs with on the NetJet circuit. His performance was polished and solid, yet uninspired. The light show slickly induced epileptic fits. His four-piece backing band (guitarist, keyboardist, drummer, DJ) was virtuous to the point of monotony. The stage design was basic and underwhelming: metal scaffolding and flashing lights that alternated between platinum white and crimson red. The video backdrops lacked all artistic cohesion, shifting among backstage surveillance shots, tape reels, European art, American flags and subway cars with no graffiti. It couldn’t decide whether he wants to position himself as Budweiser or a craft micro-brew. Steven Spielberg or Steven Soderbergh

It was a primal scream away from the legitimately surreal Space Mountain set and passionate live-wire performance of Kanye West's Yeezus tour that took over Staples Center in October. And the comparison became even more impossible to ignore when Jay introduced “Paris” by lamenting the absence of his “brother Ye” because they promised that they'd never perform the song without each other. Then, with a winking entreaty, he told the L.A. crowd that they were special enough to hear the official anthem of the 1 percent (“What’s 50 grand to [someone] like me? Can you please remind me?” Of course, he’s played this to every crowd on his tour. Every paying crowd is special to Jay Z.

It’s this attitude that allows him to make intimate connections with an audience of 20,000. Over the last three years, Drake has gotten tons of fawning praise for his tactic of singling out individuals in cavernous arenas. But it was Jay who pioneered this party trick. Last night, he ribbed a guy in a Keith Haring shirt, brought a birthday girl to tears and launched into an impromptu rendition of “Suit & Tie” to two brothers who came to the show in tuxedos.

This is Jay Z in 2013. He is highly competent and far too big to fail. Most of the audience left satisfied. But it lacked thrills, spontaneity and risk. Jay Z’s current gift, and curse, is his sense of safeness and dependability. But one couldn’t help but overhear someone in the parking let mumble to his date: “Kanye’s set was a lot better.”

Twitter: @passionweiss