Watching the dissolution of an artist right before your eyes is an elusive experience — even when it happens to be a metaphorical one. Jay-Z’s 13th studio album, 4:44, is the pinnacle of his evolution; a drug dealer hailing from Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects who conquered an ominous past reflecting on his life as one’s the world’s most renowned musicians 20 years into his career.
His self-interrogation remains honest no matter uncomfortable it is; “Kill Jay-Z” displays the rapper confessing to some of his darkest moments that he doesn’t really talk about publicly anymore (shooting his brother, stabbing record producer Lance Rivera) while the title track reveals glimpses of truth into his much speculated about marital strife. 4:44 is not only a solid listen, a magnum opus from of rap’s most important figures.
His corresponding 4:44 Tour bravely continued on this trajectory and made a stop at Boston’s TD Garden this past Saturday (November 25), with rapper Vic Mensa slotted in for the coveted opening act. From three giant screens projecting the emcee’s face inhaling smoke to it then being engulfed in flames, it was clear from the very beginning of the set — which aptly started with the aforementioned “Kill Jay-Z” — that his performance would in fact be a manifestation of his storied journey. Jay, who performed 30 songs at the Garden, gave back just as much energy that he consumed from the audience and did it quite effortlessly.
Not only did he manage to balance songs from his earlier catalogue (“Where I’m From,” “Lucifer,” Izzo,” “Public Service Announcement”) with certified club bangers (“Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” “Big Pimpin,” “I Just Wanna Love U,” “99 Problems”), he dedicated a considerable part of the evening to the introspection of 4:44. While he addressed his vulnerability in the title track before performing it and gushed over daughter Blue Ivy’s freestyle as it played in between songs (“Excuse me, but this my shit!”), it was his inspirational blurbs that stayed with fans throughout the night.
Jay-Z dedicated “The Story of O.J” — accompanied by all of the video’s provocative and racially charged imagery — to “all the beautiful black people who made it possible for me to talk my shit on this stage tonight.” He then narrated that “Niggas In Paris,” his Kanye West-assisted single from 2011 collaboration album Watch The Throne, was about a young man from Brooklyn and another from Chicago believing in themselves so much that everyone else thought they were crazy.
He also addressed police brutality before declaring the song a celebration of black excellence: “If your 16 year old child left your home and didn’t come back home afterward, that’s a young person that lost their life and didn’t fulfill their potential. It’s not a black and white issue — it’s a human issue. But black people in particular, we gotta get our shit together. We got to start working together — we ain’t a second class citizen to nobody.”
Through the night, “Empire State of Mind” and “Hard Knock Life” continued Jay-Z’s triumphant string of hits. But when he did his Linkin Park collaboration “Numb/Encore” as the last song of the evening and dedicated it to the memory of the band’s lead singer Chester Bennington, we were reminded that Jay has always been a very pensive and deliberate lyricist — we just needed a quick reminder.
Photos by Candace McDuffie; follow her @cmcduffie1.