Live Review: Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake
It was just Baltimore‚Äôs luck that Thursday, the first day the city would host an all-too-rare stadium concert in years, would be plagued by foreboding clouds and occasional rain. But things had finally cleared up, for the most part, by the time Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake arrived onstage at M&T Bank Stadium for their co-headlining ‚ÄúLegends of the Summer‚ÄĚ tour, which will have stopped in only 12 cities when it wraps up next week.
And even when it did rain, there was an eerie perfection to its timing: an hour into the show, as Jay-Z was performing the fan favorite ‚ÄúPublic Service Announcement,‚ÄĚ the first light raindrops started to fall within seconds of him rapping, ‚ÄúWhenever there‚Äôs a drought/Get your umbrellas out, because that‚Äôs when I brainstorm.‚ÄĚ Ironically, there were no umbrellas in the audience ‚Äď M&T security not allowing them in, and piles of confiscated umbrellas were languishing at the entrance gates at that moment.
When it finally did begin to truly rain, 20 minutes later, Timberlake was in the midst of his solo portion of the set. The raindrops reflected in the lights beamed out into the audience during ‚ÄúLoveStoned/I Think She Knows‚ÄĚ caught the singer‚Äôs eye, and he smiled and repeated, ‚ÄúThis rain is right on time.‚ÄĚ The rain continued as he performed two moody ballads, including one of his signature songs, ‚ÄúCry Me A River,‚ÄĚ which famously opens with rain sound effects. Then the rain promptly ceased as he transitioned into uptempo material, as if it was just another perfectly planned moment in this impeccably choreographed stage show.
Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake were onstage, either together or individually, for 140 seamless minutes on Thursday, with no opening act, intermission, or even encore break. They may not bring out the best in each other creatively ‚Äď the concert was bookended by their two recent hit collaborations, Jay-Z‚Äôs boorish ‚ÄúHoly Grail‚ÄĚ and Timberlake‚Äôs corny ‚ÄúSuit & Tie‚ÄĚ ‚Äď but as tourmates they fit together surprisingly well. Combining multiple superstar acts for a package tour is not exactly a novel idea, but it‚Äôs rare that two co-headliners are such a well-matched yin and yang, without one act outshining the other or any apparent ego-driven competition getting in the way of cooperation (such as, say, when Jay-Z‚Äôs 2004 tour with R. Kelly ended in disaster). That this duo is a singer and a rapper, one white and one black, with over ten years‚Äô age difference, makes the effectiveness of the pairing all the more impressive.
‚ÄúHoly Grail,‚ÄĚ a song that sounds like it was written for stadium shows and very well may have been, sounded far better in this context than it does on the radio. After opening with the song, the pair yelled ‚ÄúBaltimore, make some noise!‚ÄĚ and proceeded to pump out dozens of their best known songs. Although they never collaborated significantly before this year, Jay-Z and Timberlake have several common musical links, particularly in that many of their respective hits have been crafted with the same two Virginia-based production powerhouses, Timbaland and The Neptunes. All of the songs Timberlake performed on Thursday, and about one third of the songs Jay-Z performed, were produced by one or the other, which served as the sonic glue linking their very different discographies.
Timberlake‚Äôs recent single ‚ÄúTunnel Vision‚ÄĚ gradually geared down to a slower BPM at the end, until it morphed into another Timbaland production, Jay-Z‚Äôs speed rap masterpiece ‚ÄúJigga What, Jigga Who.‚ÄĚ Timberlake jumped in to help out on several of Jay-Z‚Äôs hits, singing the hooks to ‚ÄúI Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúExcuse Me Miss‚ÄĚ that were originally performed by The Neptunes‚Äô Pharrell Williams.
Already this year, the pair have individually released the two biggest selling albums of 2013 so far, Timberlake‚Äôs The 20/20 Experience and Jay-Z‚Äôs Magna Carta‚Ä¶Holy Grail, and although neither is remotely the artist‚Äôs best work, they‚Äôre happily reaping the rewards of longevity. Both men are among the only, if not the only, figures in popular music who have enjoyed consistent multi-platinum success for the past 15 years ‚Äď Jay-Z‚Äôs first blockbuster album was released in 1998, the same year that Timberlake‚Äôs career-launching boy band ‚ÄėN Sync burst onto the scene. Of course, Timberlake never touched on those early days in his set on Thursday, drawing just from his three solo albums, as well as ‚ÄúTake Back The Night,‚ÄĚ the regrettably titled single from his fourth album due next month. With such a small discography, Timberlake was able to perform all of his hits and then some, effectively fitting everything you could hope for in one of his solo concerts into this two-headed monstrosity.
Jay-Z, however, has a much larger, more varied catalog than Timberlake, with more hits than he‚Äôd be able to perform with a night all to himself. Always shrewdly aware of his surroundings, Hov didn‚Äôt fail to perform most of the pop hits that have long made him hip-hop‚Äôs most respected crossover success. Although Jay only sparingly played hypeman to Timberlake‚Äôs solo showcases, Timberlake often put in overtime to help accentuate his tourmate‚Äôs hits ‚Äď he played guitar on ‚Äú99 Problems,‚ÄĚ and did a mean Frank Sinatra impression, singing ‚ÄúNew York, New York‚ÄĚ before and after Jay-Z‚Äôs chart-topping hit ‚ÄúEmpire State of Mind.‚ÄĚ But perhaps the best fusion of their talents was ‚ÄúIzzo (H.O.V.A.),‚ÄĚ the 2001 single which features a sample of the Jackson 5‚Äôs ‚ÄúI Want You Back.‚ÄĚ Timberlake sang a few bars of the sample in tribute to his idol, Michael Jackson, before Jay-Z rapped about ‚ÄúServin‚Äô ‚Äėem in the home of the Terrapins,‚ÄĚ a nod to his days of slinging drugs in Maryland, two decades before he‚Äôd be headlining a stadium in Baltimore.
Even in this environment, however, Jay-Z didn‚Äôt hold back entirely from giving his hardcore fans the show they‚Äôd want to see whether or not Timberlake was there. He never held back from swearing, and bombastic album tracks like ‚ÄúU Don‚Äôt Know‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúEncore‚ÄĚ shook the stadium. And even some of his biggest chart hits tend to be dense with observational detail and social commentary, often about the paradox of being a rich black man in a white man‚Äôs world, which took on some particular poignancy in this context. Treacly 2009 single ‚ÄúYoung Forever,‚ÄĚ perhaps the worst Jay-Z has ever released, was rendered surprisingly movingly as a closing duet with Timberlake in tribute to Trayvon Martin.
Sometimes the specter of race hovered over the proceedings awkwardly; in ‚Äú99 Problems,‚ÄĚ when Jay-Z has a hostile exchange with a police officer, basically a stand-in for the racist white establishment prepared to hold back anyone who looks like him, it was Timberlake, the white R&B singer beloved by black radio, who played the cop. (During the Jay-Z/Kanye West “Watch the Throne” tour a couple years ago, West played the cop.)
The 18-piece band backing the duo did a fantastic job of bringing each catalog to life, even if they were often largely providing window dressing to the canned studio track, particular for Jay-Z‚Äôs songs. Minor singles like ‚ÄúSummer Love‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúOn to the Next One‚ÄĚ were enlivened by their arrangements. Timberlake‚Äôs songs were seldom drawn out to the overblown 7-minute suites of his last two albums, but were stretched out just enough to retain that relaxed, expansive mood. His biggest embellishments were often ad libbed rap lyrics over sections of his songs, like the line ‚ÄúSpending everything on Alexander Wang‚ÄĚ from Kanye West‚Äôs ‚ÄúNew Slaves‚ÄĚ ‚Äď an affectionate, if oddly chosen, tip of the hat after West criticized ‚ÄúSuit & Tie‚ÄĚ earlier this year. But generally, it was an ill-advised habit ‚Äď nobody really wants to hear the chorus of Juicy J‚Äôs strip club anthem ‚ÄúBandz A Make Her Dance‚ÄĚ in the middle of the dramatic ‚ÄúCry Me A River.‚ÄĚ
Timberlake‚Äôs essential dorkiness can be both the best and worst thing about his stage persona. He often still seemed like the eager showbiz kid when showing off his many talents, switching from guitar to keyboard, pulling off a smooth dance step, or flaunting his falsetto on an inspired take of ‚ÄúPusher Love Girl.‚ÄĚ But he held his own well enough alongside Jay-Z‚Äôs unflappable kingpin persona, and they entered and exited the stage as equals that afforded each other mutual respect, playing at implying a deeper friendship that may or may not be there. The temporary alignment of their brands functions well as a corporate merger, but on this particular night, it turned out to be a pretty appealing proposition for thousands of fans as well.