In South Africa, it’s not hard to impress an audience starved for global stars. Which is why the likes of Ja Rule can alight on a stage here, trundle out hits for the faithful for less than an hour and still not be given the slow clap.
Jay-Z, however, had other plans for his first shows in South Africa, declaring that he would dig deep into his bag of tricks to deliver a show that never relented. In front of a sold-out crowd of worshiping fans, the most famous out-of-retirement rapper on the planet did just that, leaving no doubt that he’s still one of the masters of the lyrical game.
With his sideman, Memphis Bleek, acting as his foil and DJ Green Lantern on the decks, Jay-Z rolled his way through “Jigga What (Jigga Who),” “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” “Hard Knock Life,” “Jigga My N*gga,” “Change Clothes,” “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “Girls, Girls, Girls,” “Song Cry,” “99 Problems,” throwing out rhymes like spears.
Faced with evidence of the man’s undeniably peerless career (those hits just kept coming), it’s hard to fathom why Jay-Z chose the corporate life for the past few years. The rapper seemed at ease on stage, hardly pausing to take a sip of liquid refreshment (was it the water or the bottle of champagne stacked next to the DJ’s deck? — it was hard to tell) or remove his hoodie and his sunglasses.
Jay-Z even managed to slip in a few words about the lack of accessibility to clean water facing most of the population — which was his reason for hooking up with the United Nations for this tour. There’s more to the man then superstar girlfriends, club ownership and clothing lines. And his tribute to the fallen hip-hop icons — a roll call that included Tupac Shakur, Lisa Lopes and the Notorious B.I.G. — revealed the respectful side of an individual who wasted no time once again casting himself as the genre’s greatest with his intensely personal rhymes.
Still, there were just too many call and response moments, and oh-so-many tired “ladies versus fellas” interludes to count. For a man this far into the game — and the head of a major record company, to boot — tricks favored by earnest young wannabes in a pub just don’t wash.
Still, Jay-Z unleashed a performance that outstripped every rapper who has preceded him into these parts, barring maybe Cypress Hill — and that includes 50 Cent. Passion? He had it. Skills? He showcased them. Whether his new material has the same force as his current repertoire, well, we’ll just have to wait and see.
The jury is definitely still out, though, on Caribbean star Rihanna, who supported Jay-Z on his S.A. dates. Perhaps the singer (“Pon de Replay,” “SOS” and “Unfaithful”) was just tired after a brace of dates around the world, but she turned in a slender set that was glaringly short on delivery — unless you count three costume changes in 30 minutes.