Concert Reviews

Jay-Z: Ditch the Self-Help Platitudes

Jay-Z performing on November 5, 2017.
Jay-Z performing on November 5, 2017. Brandon Marshall
Is Jay-Z becoming a wannabe Tony Robbins?

At last night's 4:44 tour stop at Denver's Pepsi Center, the rapper's opener, Vic Mensa, used his songs to address mental-health issues, wrestle with the death of his murdered friend, and mourn those lost at the mass shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas. He took the stage and owned it, with moral authority.

Hova, in turn, used his pulpit to peddle feel-good platitudes so we can live out the same rags-to-riches myth he touts in hits like "Hard Knock Life," "H to the Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" and "Big Pimpin'."

It's not that we shouldn't consider life advice from the man who sings "What's better than one billionaire? Two." He knows success firsthand. Just look at this Forbes article about him and Beyoncé, the world's highest-paid celebrity couple of 2016 (despite all that dirty laundry Queen Bey aired in Lemonade) or this one about how the celebrity sweethearts are now billionaires.

It's tempting to look at him, probably the richest person most of us in the crowd had ever shared a room with, up on his raised stage, rapping to a packed Pepsi Center about everything from the Brooklyn projects he grew up in to his amorous regrets, and not wonder if we could do the same thing: Rap sincerely, produce a few chart-topping albums, marry Beyoncé and become a billionaire. After all, isn't that the American Dream we've all been promised? That guy up on stage with that sweet smile shows us that it can be done.

And he wants us to believe it.

But corny banter like "No matter how bad it gets, it's for the greater good," and "Everything you go through is a lesson," and "Make sure you're smiling no matter what you're going through," hardly has the weight of his songs, which span the gamut from sweeping historical despair in "The Story of OJ" to amplified petty, professional handwringing in "Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)," both of which Jay-Z performed flawlessly last night, thanks in part to the world's most enthusiastic backing band worth 10,000 hype men.

click to enlarge Vic Mensa performing on November 5, 2017. - BRANDON MARSHALL
Vic Mensa performing on November 5, 2017.
Brandon Marshall
In truth, the best advice he doled out at the show wasn't designed to give anybody hope in hard times or help us figure out how to get rich and successful. He told a guy off (who might have been a security guard) for preventing other audience members from enjoying the concert.

It was something you often see at a DIY punk show: "Girls, queers and shorties to the front," some well-intentioned singer belts out, trying to get tall guys toward the walls. But at an arena show? That is special.

That shit doesn't fly here, he said. He was direct. He was polite. He was firm. And he recovered quickly from something that could have derailed the concert.

With tens of thousands of people in the crowd, Jay-Z knew what was going on with one audience member. That's the attention to detail he has and perhaps the secret ingredient to his success.

Jay-Z showed that for him, every fan's experience matters. And he was willing to champion audience members who couldn't see thanks to some big guy's exuberance, even when doing so risked being awkward.

As an artist, he's at his best writing what he calls "uncomfortable" songs, with lyrics that don't shy away from the worst of humanity — his own included. And as a performer, that uncomfortable moment was among the most memorable and meaningful at the show. He modeled something important — not delusions of grandeur, but a small act of solidarity from one person to another. That's life advice we could all use.

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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris