As Jay Z was wrapping up “Encore,” the fitting start of his encores at Barclays Center Sunday night, he made a startling declaration: “Tonight might have been the best show I’ve ever done in Brooklyn.”
Considering how he opened the Brooklyn arena -- built only three miles from the Marcy Projects where he grew up -- with an emotional string of shows in 2012, it was a bold statement. But like most of Jay’s bold statements, it was probably true.
For nearly two hours, he proudly showcased songs from his “Magna Carta … Holy Grail” (Roc Nation) album. In most cases, he tucked them in between two classics in order to keep the momentum going, though it’s generally not necessary. “Picasso Baby” plays way better live, especially with the addition of the fuzzed-out guitar and the more industrial groove added as a segue from a roaring “99 Problems” that eventually seemed to morph into Nine Inch Nails’ “Down In It.”
The lyrical depth of “Somewhere in America” became even more meaningful as the crowd shouted along with “Twerk, Miley, Miley, twerk,” in the same place where Miley Cyrus' twerking MTV Video Music Awards performance launched an avalanche of discussion.
That was a reminder, as well as the ever-impressive “Where I’m From,” of Jay’s actual rapping prowess. His ability to fly through rhymes at breakneck speed while still making them understandable -- through an arena sound system, no less -- will be his legacy, long after his record-setting string of No. 1 albums stops. He manages that while maintaining a party atmosphere, peppered with moments of esteem-building, reminding the capacity crowd that “God has given everyone here genius-level talent.”
Perhaps the only problem with his show is the interlude he gives producer/DJ Timbaland in the middle. As skilled as he is as a musician, Timbo spinning bits of his past hits -- including Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?” and Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” -- with nothing else to watch on stage stopped the momentum built from “Empire State of Mind.”
If he’s gonna halt the party vibe, he’d be better off doing one of the slower, more important songs from “Magna Carta … Holy Grail,” like “Oceans,” one of the reasons the album landed the most Grammy nominations this year, despite a mixed (for Jay Z) reception.
And if there’s still any doubt left about how he has led the way to making live hip-hop an arena-filler – a stadium-filler, even – his encores put that to rest. The well-delivered run of “Encore,” “Izzo,” “Hard Knock Life,” and “Young Forever” can stand up against anyone.
Jay Z plays Barclays Center again Monday and Nassau Coliseum on Jan. 19.
SETLIST: U Don't Know / Crown / On to the Next One / Holy Grail / ---withmeyouknowigotit / Beach Is Better / 99 Problems / Picasso Baby / Can I Live / No Church in the Wild / Somewhere in America / Big Pimpin' / Where I’m From / Empire State of Mind / Timbaland interlude / Can I Get A… / Jigga What, Jigga Who / Dirt Off Your Shoulder / I Just Wanna Love U / In Paris / Tom Ford / PSA / Clique / Run This Town // ENCORES: Encore / Izzo (H.O.V.A.) / Hard Knock Life / Young Forever