Leading up to Jay-Z's Tuesday night show in Dallas at the American Airlines Center, stories about the rapper's still-young 4:44 tour cried commercial failure. Previous tour stops saw low-priced upper-level tickets, and secondary-market websites mimicked lower-than-expected prices in Dallas, too. But near the end of his 90-minute set, standing in the middle of a comfortably crowded arena, Shawn Carter tossed aside the doubters.
"There's a lot of [expletive] here for a tour that ain't selling," Jay-Z said with a cocky laugh.
In many ways, the show was a giant victory lap for Jay-Z. He made no effort to hide his satisfaction as the loyal crowd cheered along to every syllable and beat. After 2013's disappointing Magna Carta Holy Grail album failed to measure up to the high critical and commercial standards he had set for his releases many years earlier, Tuesday reminded us that Jay might have settled into the comfortable life of a legacy act.
That wouldn't be so bad, really. Every year, arenas around the country are packed by classic rock bands that are years, if not decades, past their primes. After all, the Rolling Stones still know how to tear up a stage though they're a couple of generations removed from their last truly remarkable album. Earlier this year in the same Dallas venue, British metal legends Iron Maiden gave one of the year's most dramatic, energetic performances.
With Jay-Z's summertime release of 4:44, he proved he isn't ready to go quietly into that casino concert night. Delving deep into insecurities, uncertainties and anger, Jay's new record offers a sobering, fiery collection of confessions and manifestos that could've come only from a grown man who nearly lost it all and is thankful he somehow avoided it.
Perhaps that point was hammered home by the fact he opened with "Kill Jay-Z," a blistering track devoted to breaking down his walls, both inherited and self-constructed, in the name of being a better father and learning how to forgive. It's the song where he raps "You got hurt 'cuz you did cool by Ye," in reference to the public rift between his longtime friend and business partner Kanye West. It's doubtfully a coincidence that Jay followed that song with "No Church in the Wild," a thumping, ominous cut from the pair's seminal 2012 Watch the Throne record.
Performing in the round on a stage that raised and lowered with four massive, two-sided, sliding video screens, Jay-Z stuck close to the same set list he's employed on the other stops on this tour so far. But what spontaneity was missing was made up for, and then some, by the sheer freshness of the newest material and by the live band accompanying him.
For many of the latest cuts, including the self-indicting "4:44," Jay-Z simply stood in the middle, grasping the microphone stand for dear life as he spoke into it.
The instrumentalists, seated in orchestra pit-style sections, were at their best during more rocking numbers such as "Public Service Announcement" and "99 Problems."
As the show rolled on, so did the undeniable hits, though most songs were delivered as truncated versions as opposed to the entire song. "Big Pimpin'," the chauvinistic tune fully explained by its title, featured maybe his most nimble delivery of the night. "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)" with its contagious Little Orphan Annie sample, and "Empire State of Mind," complete with Alicia Keys' unforgettably epic chorus, were as vibrant and urgent as they were meant to be.
Throughout the show, he offered positive platitudes, including "love always conquers hate." For the night's final song, he dedicated "Numb/Encore," from his mash-up collaboration with Linkin Park, to Chester Bennington, the singer who killed himself earlier this year.
In honor of the late Linkin Park singer, Jay-Z implored the thousands there to "sing loud enough he can hear you up in heaven."
One of the motivational nuggets he provided was about walking out of the darkness and into the light. Such sentiments are bland greeting card fodder from some artists, but Jay-Z seemed to be speaking from experience. As he laid bare on his latest album, and in Dallas in concert, Jay-Z showed he's marched through that same darkness to triumphantly revel in the light of a cell-phone-lit arena full of admirers.