The stage setup was both grandiose and stripped-down. The relatively grandiose part: Jigga was backed by a full band, the Roc Boyz, who boasted a guitarist, bassist, two keyboardists, two drummers/percussionists, a three-piece horn section, and a DJ, Young Guru. Two Jumbotron-style screens hanging on either side of the stage alternated between close-ups and artistic video panoramas of the stage. And behind all of this, there was a backing strip of tall, vertical LED screens by whose arrangement one just knew they would eventually turn into the New York City skyline. (They did, during "Empire State of Mind," of course.)
No backing vocal tracks, no crowds of hype men. Who's the last rapper you've seen live who has neither? And so, with a self-assured swagger, he powered through basically every song every fan would want to hear, even dipping far back as his 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt, if only for a few lines (from "Ain't No Nigga"). The big guns came out early. "Empire State Of Mind," "Jigga My Nigga," "Jigga What Jigga Who," to name just a few, all got fans throwing up diamonds and chanting every word.
"Empire State of Mind" came somewhat early in the set, too. Despite being utterly played out on commercial radio, live, the song was exciting again, with its almost showtunes-style keyboard lines and chorus. It probably helped for the audience energy level, too, that probably at least half of the South Florida crowd comprised ex-New Yorkers, or at least people who had done time there.
Actually, it's good that these monster hits came early, because by the end of "Empire State of Mind," Hov was starting to sound noticeably hoarse. So with that, after shouting out A-Rod, who apparently was in the audience, he exited and ceded the stage for a while to Young Jeezy, who was billed as an opener but wound up as a sort of sandwiched-in co-headliner.
Jeezy is a commanding presence on record, but he paled as a live performer compared to Jay-Z. His music is definitely grimier and rowdier, and amplified at arena levels it reates a mood of aggressive anticipation, as if anything could pop off. It's exciting, to be sure. But Jeezy largely relied on his own vocal backing tracks, sometimes skipping actually rapping almost every other line. His most hardcore fans, though, seemed happy just to hear his hits at high volume, and they went from more recent fare like "Put On" and "Crazy World," back to earlier songs like "Trap Star."
The man of the evening soon reappeared, though, and after a joint rendition of "My President," it was back to the Jay-Z show. He acknowledged the hoarseness: "My voice is a little messed up, but I still want to go if you all want to go." We did, and after a few more big hits, came the trademark portion of any Jay-Z headlining show: the medley. With more than 20 years in the game, he now has too many crowd favorites to perform them all in full, so with his DJ's help, he sped through fragments of about 11 hits and slightly deeper cuts.
But with the clock reaching 11, it was, although early, time to wrap things up. And that's when the lights went up, and Jay-Z acknowledged the crowd, literally. He shouted out some girls on the floor with a sign asking him to play their graduation party, a guy with a Mos Def shirt, even someone up in the nearby stands. "I appreciate every single person in this building. I tell you, I'm not jaded," he said. "I'm overwhelmed with love, and I hope that I return that in full." He can rest assured that he did.
Personal Bias: I'm a life-long Yankees fan who's happy to have Jay-Z as the team's new patron saint. I guess from now on, they'll play "Empire State of Mind" after Sinatra at the end of every home game?
It's super random that someone sitting near me would wind up in our photos of the crowd outside the arena, but this guy on the right
had a really good brush-your-shoulders-off dance.
By the Way: Young Jeezy has reportedly been working on a new album with Akon; its release date is still to be decided.
-"Run This Town"
-verse from Kanye West's "Diamonds"
-"On to the Next One"
-"DOA (Death of AutoTune)"
-"U Don't Know"
-"Show Me What You Got"
-"I Just Wanna Love You (Give It To Me)"
-verse from Snoop Dogg's "I Wanna Rock (remix)"
-"Jigga My Nigga"
-"Jigga What Jigga Who"
-PSA Interlude from The Black Album
-"Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)"
-"Empire State of Mind"
Jay-Z and Young Jeezy:
-"Real As It Gets"
-"Get Ya Mind Right"
-"Bottom of the Map"
-verse from Shawty Lo's "Dey Know"
-"I'm Going In"
-"I Luv It"
-verse from Rihanna's "Hard"
-verse from song with Akon, "Soul Survivor"
Young Jeezy With Jay-Z:
-"Dirt Off Your Shoulder"
-verse from "Swagger Like Us"
-"Excuse Me Miss"
-"Venus Vs. Mars"
-"Bonnie and Clyde"
-"Ain't No Nigga"
-verse from Mya's "Best of Me"
-verse from Jermaine Dupri's "Money Ain't a Thang"
-"Where I'm From"
-verse from Kanye West's "Hate"
-"Can I Get A..."
-"Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)"