By Cameron Lee
November 17, 2017
This isn’t really a typical concert review– it’s more of a dissertation on Jay-Z’s significance on hip hop culture– but we’ll definitely get to the show. Something strange happens when an artist turns superstar then permeates popular culture. When soccer moms think something is cool, it tends to water down the mystique for legends like Hov, especially for the non-commercial indie music types. We often forget the dookie chain-donning “Hawaiian Sophie” Jay that used to roll with Jaz-O and even sometimes the Lexus GS ridin’ humble street hustlin’ Reasonable Doubt Jay-Z, that “In My Lifetime” guy. Not quite Biggie enough for popular radio in the ‘90s, distinctive like Wu-Tang, and not Will Smith enough to be a commercial rap success, Jay-Z was not the guy labels wanted in the mid-’90s. So, he created his own path with Kareem “Biggs” Burke and Damon Dash in 1995 with Roc-A-Fella records, defying industry norms in an era that short-sided a lot of artists and capitalized off of the dynamic and exploding industry of hip-hop. He’s still overcharging for what they did to the Cold Crush.
The lines were longer than most nights at the Spectrum Center and, while doors opened a little late, the anticipation was thick. It was just enough time to really observe and soak in the social and cultural impact of Brooklyn-born rapper Shawn Carter. If you think about it, very few rappers or artists have been able to stay relevant in pop music culture through multiple age generations. Music has evolved and, while the Fila, Reebok, and Champion-sporting youth relive the Golden-era fashion and sneaker culture, a 47-year-old rap artist shouldn’t be this important to so many people. His latest album 4:44 was exclusively released in June on his own streaming platform, Tidal, while all of his music was stripped from Spotify. If that’s not the most Jay-Z thing to do in 2017, I’m not sure what is. Peppered with incredible antidotes and shrewd wisdom with a subtle and nuanced instrumental track, Hov might be cruising into unknown territory of, dare I say it, “dad rap.” With huge big screens set in diagonal positions and smoke filling the stage, Hov casually rose from the stage with “Kill Jay-Z.” The onslaught of hits ensued with a few words of wisdom casually placed in between.
Although there weren’t any tracks from the classic Reasonable Doubt album that launched his career in 1996, it’s tough to fit a 20-year catalog of music into one night. He did perform “Where I’m From” from 1997’s In My Lifetime and a few from 1998’s break out album Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life. With the bass thumping through the massive arena speakers, it was fitting to hear the ghetto anthem “Hard Knock Life” in Charlotte considering the groundbreaking headlining Def Jam co-venture Hard Knock Life Tour kicked off 18 years ago in Charlotte at the old Coliseum. Most commercial fans are probably not interested in the early Jay-Z records that told introspective stories of a Brooklyn-raised crack dealer from Marcy Projects, but it’s important to note again that Hov was once an afterthought outside of the New York rap scene in the mid-‘90s and the height of Golden-era rap. While Nas, Wu-Tang, Biggie, and Mobb Deep were widely considered to be the ones who represented the New York East Coast hip-hop sound, Jay-Z took a more arduous path. Despite foreshadowing in his early albums, Hov was an unproven legal business man that took all the risk on himself with his partners Burke and Dash. In an era where starting your own label and owning your publishing was not very practical, this remains to be the one overarching part of his living legacy that resonates with so many people. His business prowess, vision, and commitment to his brand in an industry that is extremely fickle and straight-up ruthless at times, is what sets him apart. He truly is a business, man.
Jay-Z managed to kinda mention Kanye, although not by name: “This song was created by a young man from Chicago and a young man from Brooklyn, New York City” when referring to “Ni**as In Paris” from 2011’s Watch The Throne. His awe-inspiring self-gloating diatribe included Ye and his adventures in Le Marais, Paris doing what they wanted and moving how they wanted to, recording the track in a hotel suite. “Anything that you set your mind to, anything you put out the intention for, can be achieved,” he said. “I’m not telling you this cuz I read the book, I’m tellin you that cuz I’m living that tonight. My first album I was saying who’s the best, Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas…..I ain’t lie to y’all once. It’s cuz I set that intention.” Perhaps we should all set the intention to do something great in our own worlds. And I’m sure Jay-Z has lied at least once in his life, but men lie, women lie, numbers don’t.
With 14 No. 1’s on the Billboard 200 and 36 million albums sold, a rapper from the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn is the biggest rock star of our generation, or perhaps rap and hip-hop is the new rock of our music era. Either way, Jay-Z came, saw and conquered Charlotte on Thursday night. You can hate big industry music business and corporations all you want, but one thing is for sure, you can’t knock the hustle.
Check out the remaining dates for Jay-Z’s 4:44 tour.