“He Is I And I Am Him”
As the Great Young Hov took the stage during his much-anticipated ‘B-Sides 2’ performance at Webster Hall in New York City on Friday, I stood in the crowd surveying what was transpiring before my eyes.
The man known as Shawn Carter, and the performer known as Jay-Z had merged to meet on the stage. Like a superhero, we’ve come to know the public facing side of the performer while the man has been kept elusive. But after Friday and as a longtime Jay-Z fan, I felt connected to the duality that his performance represented.
Prior to him taking the stage, we were warned by DJ Clark Kent that this would be Jay’s most gritty set to date. He spinned deep cuts that only the most invested rap heads would know, with a heavy emphasis on Kanye West, Dipset and Nas. But what we did not know was that Kent had given us a precursor for what was to come.
And it wasn’t so much about the ways he sprouted out the lyrics across his almost 30-year-career in the rap game, it was also about the literal style and execution. Every detail from the glimmering Roc-A-Fella chandelier on the ceiling to Jay-Z’s attire, to his pouring of multiple glasses of champagne to share with the crowd, summoned us back to a time when Black people owned their music, their image and their message, transforming us to what felt like a one-night-only front stage seat at the Cotton Club.
And if that was the case then I claim Jay, standing on the stage, embodied the charisma and charm of Sammy Davis Jr. If we are keeping it about Black excellence during that time that would be the only way for me to describe it.
“Who You Know Fresher Than Hov, Riddle Me That?”
As his accompanying band, 1500 or Nothin’, walked out all dressed in suits, I started to get the feeling that my Cotton Club dreams were coming to fruition.
They began playing “The Prelude,” Jay-Z’s opening track on Kingdom Come which signaled his return to rap for about 15 seconds, until an orange light flickered in the middle of the stage, and there right before us stood Jay-Z. The rapper wore a custom tailored suit styled by June Ambrose with a gold medallion. He also sported a matching headband which cropped his full coiled afro. The bandana and the suit again represented the duality that Jay-Z and Shawn Carter represent, from where he came, to what the journey laid before us.
The nearly three-hour set took us down a path that was not always linear, but over the course of 41 songs, we were in full agreement that the man before us was one of the greatest of all time to ever do it.
There was a moment, which has now become internet fodder, where Jay gave a tribute to the late Nipsey Hussle with a freestyle verse at the end of “Some How Some Way.” While many took issue with the rapper’s allegiance to capitalism and the use of his word “gentrification” as a call to mobilize Black entrepreneurs to take back their neighborhoods, it also signaled that in the age of the internet, one word phrases and small snippets just didn’t give the moment justice. And while I do believe in keeping our public figures accountable, the brevity of what Friday represented, along with the lyrics to “The Can’t Be Life,” in relation to Nipsey’s life was pitch perfect.
“Can’t Touch The Untouchable, Break The Unbreakable”
Somewhere near “American Dreamin'” the energy shifted and like the inaugural B-Sides concert in 2015, it was made evident that Jay was bringing out a few guests for the ride.
And then out walked Nasir Jones, donning a Black tux suit with a floor length leather coat. The two former foes had long since laid their lyrical powers against each other to the side. But to see their chemistry up close was astounding. As the set moved into, “Success,” followed by “The World Is Yours,” there was Jay, rapping Nas’ lyrics alongside the man himself, oftentimes playing the hype man to the iconic Queensbridge emcee.
By this time, we knew other special guests would appear, so when Cam’ron Harlem’s very own walked out, it was full hysteria. The two rapped the first few verses of “Welcome To New York City,” until that same orange light singled that yet again another rap pioneer, Jim Jones, was making his entrance onto the stage. Jay again played the background while Cam’ron and Jones, took over as one half of Dipset to perform “I Really Mean It.”
By the time Cam’ron and Jones walked off, with Cam’ron visibly emotional, the crowd was in an uproar. But the rest of the journey would not deter to another special guest, it would be a moment for the rapper to spit some of his most personal lyrics including “Blueprint (Momma Loves Me)” and Adnis.
After that intimate set Jay and his longtime DJ and confidant Young Guru ran through snippets of deep cuts while Jay rapped off memory to “Show You How,” “LA-LA-LA,” and “I Love the Dough.”
By the time the rapper closed out the show, with a jazzy rendition of “Hovi Baby” I knew Jay, the leader of the pack, had achieved exactly what he set out to do.