New York City will always loom large in the music and identity of Jay-Z, but these days he and his family have settled down in Los Angeles, and his 4:44 Tour culminated Thursday night in a loose, warm finale at The Forum.
There were some on-stage theatrics, of course. The set began with sliding, suspended projection screens showing clips of Jay-Z alternately engulfed in plumes of smoke or being burned from the eyes and mouth (while the imagery worked as a perfect scene-setter for his opening song, “Kill Jay-Z,” much of the footage was repurposed from the Anthony Mandler-directed music video for the 2013 collaboration with Justin Timberlake, “Holy Grail”). During a brief run that included The Blueprint 3 track “On to the Next One,” he performed inside a sort of cage of laser-like light beams.
Flashy moments like these were ultimately few and far between. Mostly it was just Jay on stage alone — a live band accompanied him, but from the recesses of an orchestra pit — performing in the round, running through a career-spanning setlist that jumped back and forth through his catalog, with bits of 4:44 sprinkled in.
As an artist with a career that spans two decades, Jay is actively facing his own past on sage each night. He seemed to laugh at the younger, pre-parenthood version of himself as he ran through the lyrics of “What More Can I Say?” a track on which he boasts about his preferences for tailored trousers and crisp button-up shirts; now even his on-stage wardrobe consists of track pants and slouchy hoodies. When he got to the same song’s line about being at the Trump International, he shook his hands at the crowd making it clear they should no longer ask for him there. Other snippets of the Old Jay seemed a more uneasy fit for a man on tour to promote an album that focuses on contrition, vulnerability, and personal change. Most visibly, in the wake of his struggles with infidelity, when performing the high-energy “Big Pimpin,'” he politely skipped the phrase “I’ll be forever mackin,'” allowing the enthusiastic audience to sing that particular bit without him.
Most nights of the 4:44 Tour have ended with a performance of “Numb/Encore” dedicated to Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, giving Jay an opportunity to talk openly about mental health, a subject that’s rarely been discussed in mainstream hip-hop until recently. As usual, last night he implored audience members to seek mental health assistance and to provide support to loved ones. But at the finale show, “Numb/Encore” was followed by a sprawling, perhaps partially improvised encore during which he spent another 20 minutes rapping along with a medley of tracks, including some older and less-performed gems.
To open this series of tour dates, Jay-Z tapped critically lauded Chicago rapper Vic Mensa. The socially conscious artist—a frequent collaborator with fellow Chicagoans Chance the Rapper and Kayne West—speaks explicitly to themes of racial injustice, police brutality, and substance abuse in his work. Where Jay-Z has grown comfortable lending his celebrity to political and social matters only more recently, Mensa is building his star on tackling the subjects directly.
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