Jay Z at Xcel Energy Center, 11/30/13

Categories: Last Night
Photo courtesy of Xcel Energy Center by Joe Lemke
Jay Z
Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
Saturday, November 30, 2013

Jay Z has more money than you can fathom, more fame than most entertainers, and sits atop a number of people's lists of greatest MCs. There's nothing he needs to accomplish at this point, and the hunger of an upcoming rapper wasn't exactly there on Saturday at the Xcel.

Instead, his confident strides as a rap legend and his desire to prove he's still got it carried the set, which focused on his latest album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, but sprinkled in plenty of classics. Part of Jay's legacy is evolving a slower style with emphasis that made each line hit on a conceptual level, which was especially evident live when he brought specific lines to life by stating them a certain way.

Jay Z hasn't rolled through the Twin Cities since his 2004 tour with R. Kelly, but he mentioned several times that he should have after seeing how live the audience was during his stop at the Xcel. It was a huge night and the excitement in the air matched the size of the space.

Photos courtesy of Xcel Energy Center by Joe Lemke
Rap shows can lose something in larger settings, but Hov managed to make the night seem intimate thanks to a stage setup that was appropriately massive without dwarfing his presence. With flashing lights, giant screens that alternated between performance close-ups and artsy visualizations, and a band of live players occupying their own mini-tower above the stage, there were plenty of arena-level accoutrements to make the show feel as big as ticket prices imply it should, but even with all the extras, the key element was Jay's impressive live rapping.

Sadly, rap ability is often not the centerpiece of many hip-hop shows these days, but at the core of this larger-than-average concert was a traditionalist sense of old-fashioned skill. Jay's set was long and strong, and he hit every cue with an understated yet consistently pointed stage presence.

Jay's live band consisted of a drummer, percussionists, bass, and guitar, with the mighty Timbaland at the center of everything. The producer powerhouse got his own section of the concert to shine, showing off his skills with beat-boxing, beat-building, and even rapping over a brief run-through of some of his greatest songs from Aaliyah, Ginuwine, and Missy Elliott. It was an incredible surprise and quite impressive to see the master at work, creating his classics from scratch.

Jay split his set in two surrounding Tim's interlude, and eventually continued to an equally lengthy encore -- beginning, of course, with "Encore." There were some omissions that would've been great to hear, as there are with anyone with as expansive a discography, but the setlist was well-chosen and fit the space. My mediocre feelings toward Jay's latest material subsided when I heard it in the context of the giant arenas for which it was presumably written. Everything sounded great and Jay sold even the weakest songs with his powerful performance.

He followed up the line "I will not lose... ever" from "You Don't Know" with a triumphant "I told you!" highlighting that 12 years after the song was written he remains on top. He lingered on the closing line "Somewhere in America / Miley Cyrus is still twerking" from "Somewhereinamerica," and transitioned beautifully into "Big Pimpin'" with a knowing smile. He gleefully ran through Pimp C's verse on "Big Pimpin'" just for the fun of it.

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