Concert Review: Jay-Z's one-night stand at Radio City. The rapper came out of ''retirement'' to mark the 10th anniversary of his debut album

By Ryan Dombal
Updated June 26, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Beyonce Knowles and Jay-Z: Kevin Mazur/

Jay-Z’s one-night stand at Radio City

June 25, 2006
Radio City Music Hall

After Jay-Z flawlessly re-created his sinister, paranoid 1996 classic album, Reasonable Doubt, in its entirety at this special one-off performance, he came back out of Radio City’s hallowed wings for a 40-minute victory lap of nonstop hits. During this ”overtime” period, he launched into one of his most explosive tracks, the banger-defining screamer ”U Don’t Know.” As he sauntered — forever cool — across the stage, the giant screens behind him showed footage of Kurt Cobain obliterating a helpless guitar. The video choice was odd, but somehow apropos: Like Cobain, Jay is that rare artist who demolishes genre and cultural boundaries en route to universality; just as there’s no denying ”Smells Like Teen Spirit,” even those who can’t stand hip-hop probably have a favorite Jay-Z track. But whereas Cobain was overcome by fame and its punishing effects, Jay thrives on it. After all, it takes someone supremely infatuated with his own stature and legacy to throw an over-the-top concert commemorating the release of his own debut album. As usual, though, the rapper’s egotism paid in full, as Reasonable Doubt was rendered in lush, cinematic grandeur.

Never one to hide his excesses, Jay arrived onstage in a sparkling luxury automobile sporting a blinding white tux. And as soon as Radio City’s enormous curtain raised, the spectacle of the event was obvious: He’d brought along a 40-something-piece string and horn section (slyly dubbed the ”Huster’s Symphony Orchestra”), plus a handful of other crack players (including the night’s musical director, Roots drummer ?uestlove). Through the night, the big band fleshed out the subtle, serpentine charms of Reasonable Doubt, draping melodrama over insular rhymes about the inherent moral conflicts of a one-eye-open hustler’s lifestyle.

Presenting the album in reverse order, the set started with ”Regrets.” The song’s dinner-theater-R&B touches were emphasized as Jay cruised through its twisty verses with trademark ease. ”In order to survive you gotta learn to live with regrets,” he rapped, encapsulating the mental tug-of-war that is the core of Reasonable Doubt. Sometimes, the 10-year-old tracks were given new life by the ensemble’s high-class arrangements. On ”Friend or Foe,” the song’s stark, humorous narrative threat transformed from a stinging small scene on record to an impossibly widescreen feature, the strings adding a swelling dynamic. ”That’s what I’m f—ing talking about,” Jay mused afterward, struck by the revamp. ”Can I Live” and ”22 Two’s,” lyrical exercises of the highest order, also bloomed with the full band. On the latter, Jay unveiled a new verse, doubling his wordplay pleasure with a dense bit of language called ”44 Four’s” (”That’s the type of metaphors I write/ To let niggas know I was real before the mic”), an escalating tally of ”four” plays blazing behind him. The verse was the best thing he’s mustered since his ”retirement” from rapping in 2003, and it once again brought his peerless skills — both technical and crowd-pleasing — into tight focus.

For all the grand moments, though, there were some minor slips: The bubbly ”Feelin’ It” was adorned with an arrangement that felt a little too Love Boat, and guest Foxy Brown — who revealed that she had become deaf last year and has apparently had surgery to correct the problem — was noticeably off the beat on ”Ain’t No Nigga” (two words: hearing aids). But the thematic sweep of the night helped to gloss over such hiccups. That, and a surprise appearance by Beyoncé, who tore through the hook of ”Can’t Knock the Hustle,” actually improving upon Mary J. Blige’s much-revered original take.

Even when revisiting his old material, Jay-Z still brings an unexpected freshness to hip-hop. In this case, he coupled some of his most uncompromising underworld tales with music that harked back to the pop classicism of Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra, and found a ridiculous — and, more often than not, ridiculously on target — middle ground. With a confirmed globe-trotting tour on the horizon, it seems like the lure of the stage is once again bringing Brooklyn’s finest out of the boardroom and back into the spotlight. And for an artist with such a reciprocally brilliant relationship with superstardom, that’s only natural.

(Editor’s Note: Ryan Dombal wasn’t the only EW writer lucky enough to catch Jay-Z’s one-off Radio City Music Hall show — get Margeaux Watson’s take on the concert in the July 7, 2006, issue of Entertainment Weekly.)