Review: Jay-Z celebrates career at Little Caesars Arena

The rapper performed a hits-packed 90-minute set for a full house on Saturday night

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Jay-Z was about halfway into his hits-packed set at Little Caesars Arena on Saturday night, transitioning from one building-shaking smash into the next, when he made a bold proclamation to the near-capacity crowd.

“I got a million of these!” he said, ebullient and full of life.

And he does, or at least roughly 30 of them, which he performed in rapid fire succession on an in-the-round stage for an audience that included Big Sean, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. (James and Wade were in town early for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Monday night game against the Detroit Pistons.)

Jay could have kept going, too, but he quickly wrapped the show at the 90-minute mark, even though he was nowhere near overstaying his welcome.

The rapper, who turns 48 next month, is 21 years into a historic, blockbuster career where he has blown up into a global superstar, evolved into a business mogul and become an influential political figure, all while keeping his credibility as one of rap’s most nimble lyricists in tact. Few, if any, have ever done it better.

His 2017 album “4:44” is his most experimental, confessional and personal album to date, and it finds him alternating between doling out financial advice to his fans and speaking frankly to his wife, Beyoncé, for the alleged infidelities that led to her “Lemonade” album.

When presented live, that “4:44” material could have butted up against the more celebratory offerings in his catalog and made for several awkward transitions, but everything fit and flowed together seamlessly at the show, like one continuous idea.

Jay opened with “Kill Jay-Z,” the new album’s opening song, which fell right into “No Church in the Wild,” the opener from “Watch the Throne,” his joint album with Kanye West. (Jay is critical of Kanye in “Kill Jay-Z” but that didn’t keep him from dipping into “Watch the Throne” material, as he later performed “Paris,” including Kanye’s verse.)

Jay was surrounded by large video screens suspended diagonally from above, and those screens alternated positions throughout the show. His stage in the center of the arena, meanwhile, sometimes raised, creating an elevated platform for him to perform on, and was sometimes lowered, allowing him to walk the periphery of the stage and interact with fans on all sides of the structure.

Sometimes those fans interacted back: late in the show, during “Smile,” a fan in the front row rapped every word back to Jay, taking him by surprise. “I almost gave him the mic,” Jay said, after acknowledging the fan with a point. “Thank you, sir,” Jay told him.

He spoke to the crowd about activism, following a performance of “The Story of O.J.,” which was accompanied by images of old time cartoons that portrayed racist images of African Americans.

“When you see people putting a fist in the air, that’s not about the flag. That’s all about injustice, that’s all about giving attention to injustice,” Jay said. “That’s a human issue, not a black and white issue. Everyone should be turning up.”

He also talked about self-motivation, mentioning things he said in his own lyrics that he later manifested for himself. “I said that (expletive)!” he said, quoting lines from throughout his career, almost wowed by his own ability to make them come true.

And he gave example after example of his dominance in rap, hit after hit from his two decade career, from “Run This Town” to “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” to “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” to “U Don’t Know” to “Big Pimpin’” to “99 Problems” to “Empire State of Mind.” He also dipped back to “In My Lifetime, Vol. 1,” his second album, for a brush with “Where I’m From.”

He was very physical, rarely staying in one place, moving around all sides of the 360-degree stage, his seven-piece band tucked away at ground level. The production owed a lot to Kanye West and his revolutionary “Glow in the Dark” tour, which found Kanye manning the stage alone for two hours, setting a new bar from hip-hop production and creating a model that is still being closely followed today.

“4:44” songs such as the apologetic title track, the party cut “Bam,” the introspective “Family Feud” and the history lesson “Moonlight” worked well alongside the parade of hits, and the two complimented each other well. The “4:44” material gave the show weight, while the hits gave it an air of celebration, and showed he could lean on those hits even more if he felt the need.

But he didn’t. After dedicating “Numb/ Encore” to the memory of fallen Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington (“mental health is a real issue,” he told the crowd, urging them to help anyone in their lives who struggle with feelings of suicide), Jay exited the stage through the crowd and called it a night.

He had made his point, and didn’t feel the need to belabor it. Perhaps that comes with age: the ability to know when to walk away and leave them wanting more.

Opener Vic Mensa performed a fiery set that fell on mostly empty seats, as the late-to-arrive crowd didn’t file in until right before Jay-Z’s 9:30 p.m. start time.


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