Words by Keith Nelson, Jr.
This could have been horrible. 45 year old Jay Z rapping to subscribers of his media streaming service Tidal that he lost 92 kilos like he used to when he was 30. There could have been a generational disconnect heard loudly in prolonged silences as Jay dug deeper into his never ending catalogue that is older than many in attendance. He could have tricked all of us and sprinkled some rare gems among well established hits in order to prevent such a disconnect from being a glaring black eye on Tidal’s biggest show. A lot could have gone wrong.
And Jay Z could have lost at some point in his illustrious (and How-To level) 20 year recording career. None of those things happened last night at Terminal 5 NYC.
While the setlist was full of 90s era Jay Z tracks, the “B-Sides” moniker was not a rigid framework which confined him to performing insanely obscure songs, but more of a sentiment of the night as deep album cuts mixed with past hits. He didn’t perform a single full post-retirement song until American Gangster “Success” halfway through the 2 hour marathon show. But he did perform “Jigga My Nigga” and “Clique”, both Billboard Top 30 hits.
Though ensconced in the dark purple glow of Terminal 5 NYC, the thousands in attendance made their presence known and their genuine fandom apparent. They rapped along to the first verse of “Momma Loves Me” when Jay randomly decided to recite it acapella in the middle of his B.B. King dedication, on cue, without missing a beat, as if they rehearsed it with the Tidal boss himself. When he was incredulous of anyone knowing the lyrics to “Dead Presidents 1”, Reasonable Doubt’s promotional single left off the official album, the crowd’s word-for-word recitation proved they “know this nigga, Jay Z, Shawn Carter.” Even Chris Rock, in the VIP section with the likes of OG Juan and Olivia Wilde, seemed shocked by how well he knew Jay Z was “raping Def Jam until I’m the hundred million man.”
Given the recent string of bad press, conventional wisdom is these two B-Sides shows are IPO Hov’s latest attempt at attracting new paying subscribers to his business. A reasonable expectation until about 17 minutes into the concert, after Jay used the “say hi to the bad guy” chorus from his American Gangster cut “Say Hello” to segway into him proclaiming himself the “bad guy” of the music streaming game. He’s no longer putting rappers in tutu’s on jumbotrons or getting Super Ugly, but the same man who claimed to leave condoms on Nas’s daughter’s car seat demonstrated how this entire show was to prove that no matter if it’s Marcy Projects or Silicon Valley, his fight has never changed:
“Pharrell told me to take the safest bet,
Jimmy Iovine offered a safety net
Google dangled around a crazy check
I feel like YouTube was the biggest culprit
Them niggas pay you a tenth of what you’re supposed to get
You know niggas die for equal pay right?
You know when I work I ain’t ya slave right?
You know I ain’t shuckin’ and jivin’ and hi-fivin’
You know this ain’t back in the days, right?
Well I can’t tell the way they killed Freddie Gray, right?
Shot down Mike Brown, how they did Tray[von Martin], right?
Let ’em continue choking niggas
We gonna turn style (turnstile), I ain’t ya token nigga
You know I came in this game independent right?
Tidal, my own label, same difference
Oh, niggas is skeptical when it’s their own shit
You bought nine iPhones and Steve Jobs is rich
Phil Knight is worth millions, you still bought them kicks
Spotify is nine million, they ain’t say shit
Lucy you got some esplainin’ to do
The only one they hatin’ on looks the same as you
That’s cool, I know they tryin’ to bamboozle you
Spendin’ millions on me to try to confuse you
I had to talk to myself, Hov you used to it
It’s politics as usual”
His corporate connects start bugging when he talk like this.
Once he took off the blazer and loosened up the tie, the next hour and a half was a non-stop barrage of Jay Z fulfilling dreams and answering doubters. Beanie Sigel bursting from the side of the stage for his show stealing verse on “You, Him & Her” was only superseded by his and Jay’s heartfelt hug during the end of Freeway destroying his “What We Do” verse. At one point he performed “Can I Live” into “In My Lifetime (Remix)” into “Feelin’ It” into “Dead Presidents 1” into “It’s Like That” and for a moment I was paralyzed in state of nostalgia.
That’s what Jay Z’s B-Sides concert was: a real life playlist of the best Jay Z moments given at such a nonstop speed that it almost felt as if Jay was predicting what moment we wanted to relive next.
Not all smooth sailings. Similar to Tidal’s ambitious press conference in March, the B-Sides show at times tripped over its own zeal. Instead of declaring “the fire I spit burned down Happyland” on “You, Him & Her” Jay forgot the lyrics, opening the door for Memphis Bleek to skip to near the end of the next verse before Hov expertly resumed the memorable verse, like a don’s supposed to. At times, Jay forgetting lyrics led to endearing sing-a-longs by the crowd, but some took away from the enjoyment. He rapped the third verse of “Imaginary Player” after the first before asking “is there more verses on this?” and eventually giving up. While fans were robbed of the chance to hear Hov ask “those ain’t rolex diamonds, what the fuck you done to that” those were minor blips on an otherwise masterful performance.
This was a time capsule, not a museum trip. Jay dedicated no time to giving back stories or history lessons on the songs he was performing. He instead kept certain relics untouched. When he performed the “Pump It Up (Freestyle)” from his 2003 S. Carter Collection mixtape, he still uttered “Black Album coming soon.” He polished a few up so now “if you a thot, I’mma call you a thot”, but for the most part, Jay Z kept the B-Sides just how we love them.
This was just the first night.