As Jay Z went into a freestyle at Terminal 5 in Manhattan Saturday night, you could actually hear the gasps.
"I'm the bad guy now, I hear," he said, following "Say Hello," early on in his secret show for subscribers of the Tidal streaming music service. "All because I don't go with the flow."
Jay -- along with the service's superstar co-owners, including Beyonce, Madonna and Rihanna -- has been dogged by criticism of Tidal for its premium pricing and lack of a free option. In his freestyle, Jay quickly sought to answer his critics and put his competitors, including YouTube and Spotify, on notice.
"The only one they hatin' on looks the same as you," Jay told the crowd. "That's cool, I know they tryin' to bamboozle you, spendin' millions on me to try to confuse you."
But his freestyle was broader than that, talking about the current state of race relations. "You know I ain't shuckin' and jivin' and hi-fivin'," he said. "You know this ain't back in the days, right? Well I can't tell the way they killed Freddie Gray, right? Shot down Mike Brown, how they did Tray, right?"
Then, as if to prove this was all off the top of his head, Jay seemed to rap himself into a corner. "We gonna turn style, I ain't ya token," he says, breaking into a smile, waiting for the audience to connect tokens with turnstiles.
In a way, the freestyle encapsulated the entire "Tidal X: The B-Sides" show. The concert Saturday night, as well as one on Sunday, was only open to Tidal subscribers who submitted a playlist that fit the theme of celebrating lesser-known tracks. Saturday's show was also streamed live on the Tidal service.
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Though the jaded called it a two-hour commercial for Tidal, the concert was clearly a labor of love for Jay Z, who assembled an impressive nine-piece band, as well as rappers from Memphis Bleek and Beanie Sigel to Jay Electronica and Young Jeezy, to back him up.
He said that he's wanted to do a show of his deep tracks for nearly a decade. "You think I know all this, but it's a lot of lyrics to learn," he confessed. "It's like a history lesson."
But it was an incredibly fun history lesson, ranging from the "Reasonable Doubt" classic "22 Two's" to his brilliantly confrontational "Ignorant ---" from the soundtrack to "American Gangster," a night distinctly set in turn-of-the-century hip-hop. There was even a moment of silence for the late B.B. King and a fiery rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Sure, there is an element of corporate synergy in Jay's show, which will be archived and available on demand for Tidal subscribers. But it didn't take away from his stunning performance of many beloved songs his fans never thought they would see done live.
And knowing Jay Z, feeling like the underdog again made him kick his performance into an even higher gear.
SETLIST: The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (Intro) / Young, Gifted & Black / Pump It Up / Streets Is Watching / Friend or Foe / Where I'm From / Say Hello / Freestyle / Politics as Usual / Guess Who's Back / Show You How / Jigga My --- / Hovi Baby / 22 Twos / U Don't Know / A Million and One Questions / Rhyme No More / So Ghetto / D'evils / This Can't Be Life / Big Poppa (snippet) / Ignorant ---- / Grammy Family / ROC LA FAMILIA Medley: Takeover > You, Me, Him & Her > What We Do > Clique / We Made It (with Jay Electronica) / Exhibit C (with Jay Electronica) / Go Crazy (with Young Jeezy) / Who Dat (with Young Jeezy) / Can I Live / In My Lifetime / Feelin' It / Imaginary Player / Dead Presidents // ENCORE: It's Like That / Never Change / Blueprint (Momma Loves Me) / Allure / Star Spangled Banner / Public Service Announcement