On the Internet, nobody knows you’re hoarse. I am at the moment, not to mention a little hearing-impaired, after catching two deafeningly loud, scream-along Jay-Z performances in the past three days. I figured Jay would have to switch up the set list between appearing at midtown NYC’s Hammerstein Ballroom on Sunday and again last night at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater. As it happened, he barely did. Both nights featured 23 of the exact same selections from his miles-deep catalog — seven new tracks, five from 2003’s The Black Album, four from 2000’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, and one or two highlights from each of his other post-’97 CDs — in (I think) the exact same order.
That is most definitely not a complaint. Jay is a fantastically energetic live performer, and I’d happily hear him perform the same set of solid-gold hits ten more times in a row. But luckily, the two shows had enough subtle differences to delight any serious fan of the man’s work. Which can only mean one thing: Time to break ’em down point by point and declare a winner!
Hammerstein: I was right in the middle of the sweaty, psyched general-admission crowd on the floor — exactly the way you want to see a show like this. Plus, the people jumping up and down around me didn’t even obscure my view of the sweet video-screen visuals above the stage.
Apollo: No video screens, just a banner with the words “JAY-Z AMERICAN GANGSTER” on it. I was in a cramped balcony, right in front of some uptight guy who actually had the nerve to ask me to sit down during the show’s peak. (News flash, anonymous dude: This is a rap show, not the ballet.) Even Jay repeatedly remarked that he was disappointed in the crowd’s reserved reactions.
Opening DJ set
Hammerstein: Funkmaster Flex of Hot 97 (the NYC rap radio station that sponsored the show) spun a bunch of hits, occasionally pausing to bellow something obscene about NYC’s other rap radio station. (“F— Power 105!”)
Apollo: DJ Clue of Power 105 (which sponsored this show) spun a very similar set of hits, with slightly better sound quality, occasionally pausing to bellow one of his trademark catchphrases. (“DJ Clue Desert Storm! Yeah!”)
Edge: Apollo, for politeness.
Celebs in the audience
Hammerstein: The Roots’ drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, bobbing his iconic ‘fro from a spot high in the venue’s rafters.
Apollo: Cleveland Cavaliers small forward LeBron James, grinning and nodding his head in a private box seat; Beyoncé, arriving in time to throw up her Roc-A-Fella diamond hand sign and mouth the words to “Encore” from a nearby box seat.
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Hammerstein: The crowd went wild when Lil Wayne, who traded semi-veiled barbs with Jay for months before patching things up recently, turned up to perform his woozy sing-rap hook from American Gangster‘s”Hello Brooklyn 2.0.” He, too, tossed up his Roc sign and gave Jay aheartfelt hug before dubbing the big guy “The best rapper alive!” andhimself “The next rapper in line!”
Apollo: Even this crowd went totally bananas when Nas, who participated in a viciously public hatefest with Jay for years before patching things up a couple years ago, turned up to perform his slick verse from American Gangster‘s”Success” — and his own ’06 cut “Black Republicans,” his first-evercollab with Jay. Nas clutched a champagne bottle and puffed a cigarwhile a grinning Jay rapped beside him; after the two songs, the titansexchanged respectful handshakes. Absolutely spellbinding.
Roc stars (part 1)
Hammerstein: Most of the key artists who’ve been associated withJay’s Roc-A-Fella dynasty joined Jay midway through the show. Firstcame Memphis Bleek and Beanie Sigel for Jay’s 2000 “You, Me, Him, andHer” and “Change the Game”; then Freeway joined them for Beanie’s 2001″Roc the Mic” and his own 2003 “What We Do”; Young Chris came out torock his group Young Gunz’ 2003 “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop””; and finally,the others left Jay and Beanie alone to perform American Gangster‘s”Ignorant S—.” Only a couple of those songs can touch Jay’s solo hitson record, but live they made for one of the best parts of the night.The chemistry between Jay and these guys — shouting along with eachothers’ lyrics, mirroring each others’ gestures — is still amazingafter all these years. Is it too much to hope that vague reports of a new group album from the lot of them (The Dynasty 2)will come to fruition? (“We gon’ put the band back together!” Jay saidwith a laugh when I asked him last month if Beanie’s guest spot on”Ignorant S—” meant the Roc was back in effect. My fingers arecrossed.)
Apollo: The same series of group performances, still awesome —plus Neef, the other member of Young Gunz, joining Young Chris on their”Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop.” Chris and Neef? What more can you ask for?
Random back-catalog addition
Hammerstein: On this night only, Jay broke out the first verseof 1997’s “Where I’m From” — a sweet moment of nostalgia, and theoldest song he played either night.
Apollo: On this night only, he played the “Superfreak”-sampling title track from Kingdom Come. Whenhe got to the lyrics “Take off the blazer, loosen up the tie, stepinside the booth,” everyone knew to shout out “Superman is alive!”
Unreleased a cappella interlude(s)
Hammerstein: “This S— Right Here,” the clever track he was still batting around at the early-October listening sessionI attended. Still sounds great, with or without the MarvinGaye-sampling beat (which I think later evolved into the beat for”American Dreamin’,” though I’m not sure).
Apollo: “This S— Right Here” again — plus, at the very end ofthe night, an impromptu freestyle celebrating Jay’s tenth No. 1Billboard debut, which was announced that evening. (“I’m my own numberone fan/…I’m stepping on Elvis’ blue suede shoes, ’cause I’m numberone again!”)
Hammerstein: Jay and the Bad Boy CEO/American Gangster beatsmith ran through their verses from 50 Cent’s “I Get Money (Forbes 1-2-3 remix)”; Fitty, sadly, was nowhere to be seen. (Pictured is Jay and Diddy’s duet at Hammerstein.)
Apollo: This time, Diddy came out for the first verse of “RocBoys,” which he produced. Let it be said that the man’s dance moveshave not deteriorated over the years in any way — dude was whirling andgrooving around like it was 1994. He also made a hell of a hypeman,whooping into the mic despite the fact that he does not rap on the song.
Weird karaoke break
Hammerstein: “Y’all don’t even need me no more!” laughed Jayafter letting the crowd rap all the lyrics to “Big Pimpin’.” He thenleft the stage; while we waited patiently for him to return for hisencore, the band played gooey, semi-instrumental versions of a few ofhis songs (“Can’t Knock the Hustle,” etc.) featuring a maudlin backupsinger wailing away in place of any rapping. Um, what was that?
Apollo: Same exact segue, down to Jay’s pre-departure patter. Again: Huh?!
Edge: Neither. Minus one point from both.
Roc stars (part 2)
Hammerstein: Jay closed the night with a rousing performance of”Roc Boys,” bringing all the aforementioned Roc-A-Fella protégés (plusmore recent signee Tru-Life) on stage halfway through. Afterward, hebrought out veteran NY rapper Jadakiss to announce his signing to theRoc — a shoulda-been-great moment that fell flat when a scowling Jadarefused to rap over any of the beats that DJ Green Lantern had withhim. (To Diddy’s 1997 “It’s All About the Benjamins,” on which he wasfeatured: “Nah, that’s Puff’s.”) Awk-ward, though Jada eventuallydropped the sullen act and tossed up a diamond of his own.
Apollo: As noted, Diddy enlivened the show-closing “Roc Boys”this night; the Roc-A-Fella troops (including Tru-Life, but no Jada)joined him and Jay on the second verse. Best of all, LeBron James camedown from his box seat to join the party on stage. He even got a mic.(“That’s my guy,” Jay told me of the basketball star last month. “Iguess I would serve as a big brother to him, as far as mentoring himand things like that. He’s a Roc member.”) Much better than Jada thegrouch!
And the winner is…
…Hov, as the man himself says.Yes, by my count, that’s six points for the Apollo to a measly onepoint for the Hammerstein. But if you’d asked me what I thought of theHammerstein show on Monday morning, I’d have told you it was one of thebest shows I’d seen all year — and it was, even if the Apollo showsorta crushed it in retrospect. Point is, Jay’s one of very few artistsI could see play such similar sets in such close proximity withoutgetting tired. (The only other one might be Radiohead, whom I fullyplan on seeing as many times as possible when they tour the U.S. nextyear.) Who’s on your list?