For the last two years, the most important role Jay-Z has played has been that of America’s Number One Cuck. His tar-and-feathering on “Lemonade” was hailed as nothing less than empowering and transformative; he’s weathered the utter tanking of Tidal and a collective shrug at a new album. He’s the emasculated, bumbling ne’er-do-well, the devoted manservant dutifully holding the popcorn at Knicks games. It’s become impossible to see him except through the lens of the demigod next to him.
But for an hour last night at the Meadows festival, Jay-Z made Beyonce disappear. In a lineup stacked with young, hungry rap talent, the 47-year-old could have been the obligatory oldie headliner, wheezing his way through the hits in front of Polo-clad dads while teens flocked to the exits. But his performance was one for the ages: technically flawless, generous, energetic, fresh. It was easily the best rap show I’ve seen since Jay’s little brother Kanye graced the same stage a year ago, and capped off a whirlwind day that showcased the genre’s past, present and future.
The day started off with 21 Savage and Migos, two rap acts that have far surpassed Jay Z in current cultural cache. They’ve shifted not just the geographical epicenter but the timbre of the genre: while Jay has always been crisp and laser focused, 21 Savage and Migos thrive on their drowsiness; they prefer to blur and obscure. But in the hot New York sun, that impulse instead came off closer to laziness. By the eighth or so time through the chorus of 21 Savage’s closer, “Bank Account,” the crowd’s chants of “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, Ms in my bank account!” sounded more like sheepish motions than real respect or enthusiasm. Twenty minutes later, the three Migos emerged on the mainstage, wandering around aimlessly and incoherently, unable to coordinate their verses and ad libs with the overbearing backing tracks. To make matters worse, the cloying DJ yelled over them and dropped Funkmaster Flex-style bombs ad nauseum. Even the hyper-charged “T-Shirt,” one of the year’s best songs, sounded like a cluttered dirge.
There was no lack of energy in the next two acts. Joey Badass and Run the Jewels abandoned any semblance of cool for earnestness and brio; they bounced and roared, muscled unflinchingly through multisyllabic rapidfire verses, brought out and continuously gave dap to all their friends (Zack De La Rocha, Joi, Powers Pleasant, Gangsta Boo). Joey Badass leaned all the way into the uplifting cheese of “Devastated.” Killer Mike and El-P happily played your favorite woke uncles, cracking corny jokes, reminiscing sincerely about their comeup, sternly criticizing rape culture, putting on shoes thrown to them from the audience. It was easy to see them as a peak culmination of day’s previous acts: New York precision mixed with Southern aura.
And then Jay Z came on and blew them right out of the water. The peripherals were iffy: a Jeff Koons balloon dog, representing his very boring obsession with art as investment/inheritance; an oversize Beatles’ “Help!” tee that a 14-year-old Abbey Road tourist might wear while prancing the stripes. But the performance was astounding. It started with the very fact of his voice: authoritative, reassuring, his crisp phrases slightly swung, seemingly impervious to running out of breath. (Seriously, I need to know dude’s breathing exercises.) He seemed absolutely delighted that “Lucifer,” a 2003 B-side, was greeted by the crowd as a classic, and proceeded to lock right into Kanye’s stuttering beat.
The setlist spanned from 1997’s “Where I’m From” to half of 2017’s “4:44;” nearly every song was a reminder of how transformational he’s been at every step of his career. The soulful bounce of “Heart of the City” was Kanye’s first leap toward stardom; “Big Pimpin,” in its flawless North-South synergy, essentially set the blueprint for Run the Jewels; “Numb/Encore,” performed here with a dedication to Chester Bennington, paved the way for a current generation of emo rappers like Yung Lean and Lil Peep. (There’s some case to be made for the musical theater-borrowing “Hard Knock Life” setting a template for “Hamilton,” too.) Even “Empire State of Mind” was given the energy and commitment to overcome its cheesiness, and became a worthy anthem for the city’s 21st century.
The songs off “4:44” folded neatly into the set, though admittedly skewed closer to filler. (It was too much to ask of “Bam,” even with a spirited Damien Marley cameo, to follow the lighting-in-a-bottle magic of “Lucifer.”) It’s just not particularly interesting to hear Jay wax about Oscars or admonish other rappers’ Instagram use; still, “Moonlight” and “Marcy Me” provided some contemplative heft, and showed he can still bar up. Much to my surprise, the audience sang along.
But Jay’s strength has always been his ability to forge pure glamour out of street life; his music just sounds like money. And nowhere was this more apparent than on “U Don’t Know,” a swaggering cut from 2001, when he was hitting his peak of creativity and fame. The towering Just Blaze horns, soaring over Citi Field’s facade, made me want to mount the Koons right then and there; his clean internal rhymes (“I was born to get cake, move on and switch states / Cop the coupe with the roof gone and switch plates”) were virtuosic and effortless, the flow rumbling menacingly and waltzing gracefully. And when he arrived at the “one million two million three million four” chant, which 21 Savage had essentially swiped a few hours later, the crowd this time shouted it in ecstasy, pride, and aspiration.