Jay Z Toyota Center December 19, 2013
Jay Z is the king. A few other rappers have enjoyed their time at the top throughout the years, but Hov's been perched upon the throne for the better part of a decade and a half. A handful of others have tried to climb that hill (I'm looking at you, Mr. West), but even if Jigga quit the game today he'd still be No. 1. He's become so much more than that young rapper filling our heads with stories about his Brooklyn youth; he's a true-blue, bona fide superstar. A hip-hop legend, if you will.
And he doesn't need any gimmicks to prove it. His performance at Toyota Center Thursday night proved that to the near-capacity crowd with a blistering set of his best. While Kanye is busy singing his auto-tuned R&B ballads and building mountains, Jay-Z is sticking to what he does best. His two hours onstage didn't feature any dancers or masks or crazy lights, it was just Mr. Knowles-Carter front and center with his words, a microphone and the energy of 20,000 people as his support.
I can't even begin to describe how the Toyota Center felt Thursday. It wasn't the typical concert vibe that I've grown accustomed to at any of our bigger venues. I know this might sound peculiar, but for an arena, the show felt quaint and intimate. Although there were thousands around, it almost felt like an early Jay-Z show in Brooklyn for a big group of his friends rather than a show at a basketball stadium. People were even playing the shell game in the bathroom, swindling suckers for a dime in between songs. Where do you see that besides the streets of New York?
But don't get me wrong, despite the homey feeling throughout the room, the show was a banger. It started hot and ended as the house burnt down, and Jay never let up throughout the entirety. His backing band was simple, yet solid; a drummer, keyboardist and guitarist made up the core, while famed producer and part-time rapper Timbaland was on hand throughout the show providing his skills on the decks and additional keys. The fact that Timbaland is in his backing band is further proof that Hov is king.
As Jay said after "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" ended and the opening beats to "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)," "I've got a million of these," and that almost wasn't an understatement. The jams came as fast as a machine gun, and after he got a few of the new tracks out of the way towards the start of the set, it was the hit parade until the very end.
"99 Problems" was the alarm clock, "Picasso Baby" was the morning jog, "Dead Presidents II" was breakfast and "Tom Ford" was a hot shower. By the time Jay was shouting "Bad Bitch/H-Town/Keep it trill y'all know y'all can't fuck around," the place was wide awake and vigorously throwing their diamonds in the sky.
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After a brief interlude that found Timbaland playing around with the crowd, feeding them a smattering of his greatest beats (most of them made for Missy Elliot; what the hell happened to her?), Hov returned to finish what he started in destroying the crowd. "Big Pimpin' Vol. 3," "Nigga What Nigga Who," "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It To Me)," "Niggas In Paris" -- not many stretches of songs could ever come close to matching that. Jay-Z is still relatively young and has more hits than groups that are twice his age. Just another reason he's king.
"Beyonce's playing Brooklyn, I'm playing Houston. How special is that?" Jay said as the familiar chords of "Empire State of Mind" filled the room to start the encore. "I've come and enjoyed a little of where you're from, so share with me where I'm from," he said before offering his first verse of the tune. "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" and "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)" came next and served as the whipped cream and cherry on top of the hip-hop sundae we were all graciously sharing throughout the night.
As the lights dimmed, Jay asked the crowd to hold their lighters (cell phones) in the sky while he made his way through "Young Forever" to close out the night. It was a delightfully cheesy way to end the show; but cheesy in all the best ways possible. Though I personally like the remake of the classic Alphaville anthem, I'm not sure if it was the strongest way to go out for the rest of the crowd. Many people headed for the door before the song even finished, opting for a swift exit rather than sticking around until the bitter end.
Despite the questionable finish, the impression that Jay left in that room was above and beyond what I could've expected. It was my first Hova experience, and I was honestly blown away by what he fed us over the course of the evening.
He's the best in the game. By far.Thursday night proved that.
Personal Bias: I've been a loyal listener for years. Ever since I first heard Vol. 2... A Hard Knock Life for the first time back in '98 or '99, I was hooked. Now, after seeing him live, I'm obsessed.
Overheard In the Crowd Shout-outs to several of Houston's finest athletes and rappers who were in the building that night. Paul Wall mingled with Andre Johnson while Bun B and Dwight Howard hammed it up. OK, I'm not 100 percent on if those conversations actually took place, but they were all there, so I want to believe they did.
The Crowd: A blend of Houston's finest hip-hop heads. Well, the ones who could afford the steep ticket prices, at least.
Random Notebook Dump: During the encore, while Jay was talking to different people in the crowd, one lucky fan had their Blueprint LP signed by the man himself. I really wish I was that person.
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