The 37-year-old New Yorker is dating Beyonce. He founded the potent Roc-A-Fella brand and works as the president of Def Jam Records. He was already the best-selling rapper of all time before his much-hyped and short-lived retirement, and if he made an artistic stumble with his 2006 comeback “Kingdom Come,” he certainly reconnected with his muse on “American Gangster.”
Billboard reports that the new disc sold 179,000 copies in its first two days, pretty much assuring a debut at No. 1 next week. If that happens, Jay-Z will have his 10th chart-topping bow, tying the record of Elvis Presley, who is second only to the Beatles.
In short, the former Shawn Corey Carter is on top of the world. Yet when he took the stage before a sold-out crowd at the House of Blues early Thursday morning as part of a five-city blitzkrieg tour hyping the new album, he performed like an artist who had something to prove, or a man still desperate to break out of Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects.
Fronting a 13-piece band complete with horn section and dressed in matching retro shirts and vests, Hova (a lasting nickname) opened with a strong salvo from “American Gangster,” ratcheting up the intensity on the recorded versions of “Pray” and “No Hook,” with the crowd joining the artist to shout out the choruses on the latter. But for all of Jay-Z’s talk about the disc being a concept effort that needs to be heard in its entirety — he’s refusing to let iTunes sell it because he doesn’t want fans only downloading scattered tracks — he soon veered off topic and into his considerable back catalog.
The rapper tore through hit after hit with ferocious energy, running some together in powerful medleys that for once actually satisfied, and interjecting rapid-fire freestyles in between. An hour into the show, he brought out his labelmates Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek and Freeway for several jams. Then he took a break to let the hard-hitting band stretch out, and came back to kick things up to yet another level with a surprise guest.
Kanye West closed his recent best-selling third album with “Big Brother,” one of the most striking tracks he’s ever released. A musing on his relationship with his mentor Jay-Z, it’s a story of competition and collaboration fueled by equal parts envy and admiration. But if Hova resented it in the least, there was no evidence of it as he shared the House of Blues stage with the Chicago native, backing him up on the anthemic “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and trading verses on two other tunes before the night came to a close with all of the emcees returning for a triumphant run through the new album’s “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is) ...”
“The Roc boys in the building tonight / Oh what a feeling I’m feeling life,” Kanye rapped in the first chorus, but he was obviously speaking for the headliner, as well as for all of the fans lucky enough to experience one of hip-hop’s best once again back at the top of his game.