Unless he continually puts on special performances like his upcoming B-Sides show, or there is a Watch The Throne 2, a Blueprint 4, or a Vol. 4, we probably won’t see Jay Z on a big stage in some time. For the aforementioned B-Sides set, Jay is putting on a contest through Tidal to pick 1,100 winners that put together the best curated, most diverse playlists imaginable. I decided instead (not for lack of interest, but due to geographical location) to arrange what I consider to be the ideal set list (with the input of my big bro) made up of songs from Jigga’s catalog and features. Without further ado, here’s how I see my ultimate Hov concert going.
1. The Prelude (Kingdom Come)
A voice speaks, “You know you got this fantasy in your head about getting out of the life, and setting the corporate world on its ear…”, a sample from the film Superfly. It aptly describes exactly what Jay has done in the years since that release. He steps forward through the smoke-covered stage to appear visible to the buzzing crowd. He starts his verse, a classic intro piece, just to get the party started. This short, off of the critically maligned Kingdom Come album, is one that flies under the radar and doesn’t spoil the excitement of the myriad of hits to follow. Keeping his head low and arms gesturing in the pocket like he’s on a roller coaster, Hov smoothly delivers drug-game-infused lines like, “Pantries full of arm and hammer, don’t take Nancy Drew to see what it do, I’m a damn G” . Jay is in the drivers seat now, and is ready to take us on a trip back to Marcy.
2. December 4th (The Black Album)
The second track on The Black Album, named after his birth date, features vignettes spoken by his mother Gloria in place of the hook, with a grandiose melody flitting in the background. A subtly pulsing beat comes in coupled with an undulating string instrumental loop, and Jay fakes us out from the first two bars: “They say they never really miss you till you dead or you gone, so on that note I’m leaving after this song…” Fortunately, he’s not going anywhere. He’s here to tell his story of birth, growing up Brooklyn, and the ins and outs of a once-flourishing hustling career.
3. So Ghetto (Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter)
In this historic collabo with the legendary DJ Premier, Jay bounces all over the beat with expert smoothness. The classic instrumental takes on a new life as he revisits the throwback joint. Some years ago, former Jay-co-signed artist Lupe Fiasco had a go at it on his Enemy of the State mixtape, and did not disappoint. On this live take, Sean Carter is quick to remind us who the originator is here.
4. Hard Knock Life (Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life)
We’re still posted up in Marcy Projects, or at least Brooklyn, for the time being, and that’s more than fine. Jay is comfortable as ever on the Annie-flipped beat, gliding effortlessly until, “flow infinitely like the memory of my ni**a Biggie, ‘baby’.” It’s the second song in a row that Jay spits a bar dedicated to his fallen friend. The beat stops.
5. Whatchu Want – The Commission (The Biggie Duets)
The unique voice of the Notorious B.I.G. blasts through the speakers. The track starts at his second verse, we can’t handle the “hard, hardcore” content of the first. Jay stands posted up, arms crossed, head bobbing, in the middle of the stage as a picture of Christopher Wallace appears on the large screen behind him
Most of crowd produces chills that match that of Mr. Carter, and he puts a bow on the track by delivering his verse. Everyone throws their peace sign in the air for Big, and then the show goes on.
6. Izzo – H.O.V.A. (The Blueprint)
We’re back to our regularly scheduled programming. Jay immediately hits us in the face with another… well, hit. He’s back to waxing nostalgic about his past hustle — “herbin’ them in the home of the Terrapins” — and then bringing us into the current state of affairs (even though the song came out in 2001). The industry is still “Shady” — some say that was a thinly-veiled shot at Eminem — but it’s pretty safe to say the game is as much Jay as it is Em. And we can sense his industry aspirations by the end of the verse: “Pay us like you owe us for all the years that you hoe’d us/We can talk, but money talks, so talk mo’ bucks”. Then perhaps the most poignant bars come after the hook: “Ni**as acting like I sold you crack/ Like I told you sell drugs: no/ Hov did that so hopefully you won’t have to go through that”. He then gives more snapshots of Marcy, “the life”, and broken ghetto dreams. For a song with a catchy Jackson Five sample, Izzo’s lyrics are heavy, and Jay knows how to pack weight into every verse.
7. Public Service Announcement (The Black Album)
We experience another interruption, but it’s another one that we’re more than happy to sit and vibe through. This loud, grand, but short interlude-ish track was and is so impactful that, in my opinion, it overshadowed the song “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” when Jay paired the two in a music video. It is boisterous, and Hov performs it as such. Instead of cutting off after the first verse, as many hip hop performers do, Jay continues into the next verse to deliver that subtle yet clever line, “I’m like Che Guevara with bling on, I’m complex”. That personal favorite is a reference to his outfit during his MTV Unplugged set: the well-known Che tee with a gold chain draped around Jay’s neck and onto Che’s head. The line, which is delved into by Jay in his book Decoded, gives you some things to chew on — the capitalist success of a communist revolutionary’s likeness on consumer products, for example. So while Jay is busy spazzing out with flows that take you “back to the dude with the Lexus, fast forward the jewels and the necklace”, he also finds time to drop jewels in front of your eyes and ears.
8. Lyrical Exercise (The Blueprint)
At this point, Jay has done his laps, and then has come back around the track to talk shit to us. And we don’t mind this because it’s entertaining as fuck. We follow him into the proverbial weight room, where he makes it look effortless once again. He comes out with a heavy punch: “I jog in a graveyard, spar in the same ring/ that was housed by the building where Malcolm X was slain”. There’s that weight again. But he reminds the suckas, “getcha weight up, not ya hate up”. He’s at least throwing a lifeline for anyone who is even considering turning a particular shade of green. Plus, he is a staunch opponent of the “loser’s mentality”.
9. Renegade (The Blueprint)
Now that Jay is sufficiently warmed up, the brooding instrumental of ‘Renegade’ starts playing, and he pinballs expertly through the first verse. “Can’t step in my pants, can’t walk in my shoes…”. I call to mind a line from Kanye West, Jay’s protege: “If you can do it better than me then you do it!” Well, Eminem is featured on this track, and he could do it better than Jay, so he did it. The common consensus among hip hop heads is that Marshall completely annihilated this song. Which is not to say that Jay didn’t bring his too, it’s just that his didn’t measure up. For after describing critics’ claims that he is “a monger of hate, satanist, scatterbrained atheist” , Shady starts “waving the pistol at sixty Christians against me” , and there’s really no looking back after that. On this fantasy set list performance, Em tries and succeeds at matching the ferocity in his lyrics — trading verses with his contemporary — even though nowadays he claims to have a higher power.
10. No Hook (American Gangster)
The darkness continues, as nightmarish scenes from ghetto life come flashing back to Jay on No Hook. He harnesses that dark energy and turns it around on the song to express his disdain for commercial music, and scoffs at the audacious comparison of him to other rappers. “Compare me to trappers,” Jay says, “I’m more Frank Lucas than Ludacris”. The prominent Harlem-and-beyond drug kingpin in the 70’s, Lucas was ruthless and calculated in survival, a quality that both Denzel Washington, the legendary actor who played him, and Jay Z have in common with him in regard to their respective professions. That, along with discipline and consistency, is why we see the two artists where they are today. Hov half-leans-half-sits on a stool near the front of the stage, the tone of the song’s content weighing him down. The track fades out.
11. Lucifer (The Black Album)
The pull of D’Evils can be felt through the dark-stained, subdued bass-like guitar pluck, a plunging kick drum and eerie knock snare of a Kanye-crafted arrangement (“Kanyeezy you did it again, you a genius!”). A tenacious Jay comes out firing in the second verse with an eye-for-an-eye intention, igniting the fire of vengeance in the eyes of spectators. He promises those who wish him ill that he’ll “leave you in somebody’s cathedral for stuntin’ like Evel Knievel”. The build-up of hatred has to have a breaking point. As if he and Ye know what they’re doing, the bridge between second and third verse is chock full of repenting: “Man, I gotta get my soul right, I gotta get these devils out my life…”. And once again, the third verse leaves Jay the most vulnerable, as he pines for the opportunity to rewind the incident that left his friend, Rocafella co-founder Kareem “Biggs” Burke’s brother Bob, shot to death. The darkness creeps in again at the last moment, as Jay asks the lord if he feels he wants vengeance, to blame it on “the son of the morning”, aka Lucifer. Jay skulks to the back of the stage and out of view. Pablo Picasso’s painting of the devil is projected on the big screen just as Biggie’s picture was before it. Jay had bought the original painting a few weeks prior.
12. Picasso Baby (Magna Carta… Holy Grail)
We enter an entirely new, but not totally unfamiliar, vibe with the first offering of the night from his latest album. The graphic on the screen changes to a large white room with a white bench, to mimic the art project that was the Picasso Baby music video/short film. This is where, in my eyes, the most inspiration comes from. Yeah, Jay name drops more than The Game in this song. But it is not for trivial reasons. It is part of an effort to, consciously or unconsciously, raise the taste level that hip hop culture applies to other industries and that it expresses itself through. I believe that’s what is trying to be done with Tidal; the service being offered comes at a price, absolutely, but the enhanced consumer experience and value placed on artists is what is being heralded . Anyway, back to the show. Sonically, the tone of the Timbaland-produced banger echoes the qualities of the previous track. Lyrically, it exudes high class and a self-imposed need, or duty, for Jay to cement his legacy as the greatest.
13. Allure (The Black Album)
“I solemnly swear, to change my approach, stop shaving coke…” Much like the previous Black Album cut, this track deals with the evils that come with the game Jay has put himself in. The hustle game brings with it a rush that can’t be matched by drugs or women. Jay flashes a smirk under the brim of his Don C. designed Yankee cap as he reminisces on the rush of his previous hustle. The allure of the game can’t be explained, and Jay, joined by Pharrell playing a piano version of the loop on stage, echoes this thought on the hook.
14. Part II (On The Run) (Magna Carta… Holy Grail)
The cast of special guests continues with the queen B joining her husband to dominate this Bonnie and Clyde style track. Thematically, in the last four songs, Jay has gone from having flashbacks from his old life (No Hook), to resentfully attacking his detractors and seeking vengeance (Lucifer), then focusing on the ultimate success and the opulence that comes with it (Picasso Baby), to going back to getting caught up in The Life. Now, he and his love are on the run, and they wouldn’t have it any other way. Beyonce swoons, “I don’t care if they give me life, I get all of my life from you/ And if loving you is a crime, I would pay my life for you”: the definition of ‘ride or die’.
15. Already Home (The Blueprint 3)
Home free. This ode to success in the face of haters and hangers-on is a light, bouncy, and underrated offering from TB3. Jay is back at the crib, lamping on the couch surrounded by the spoils of victory, and commentating on the various ways his competition tries to get to him — to no avail. Kid Cudi appears on stage and lays down the poignant hook with adlibs from Jay: ” They want me to fall, fall from the top, they want me to drop, they want me to stop, they want me to go, I’m already gone…” They want him to stop, but he can’t. They want him to go ahead and disappear, but the fact is he’s already gone — into the stratosphere. He can’t be touched. And there’s nothing that anyone can do about it.
16. Encore (The Black Album)
We reach the end of our regularly scheduled programming. Jay Z goads the frantic crowd into a roaring ovation, and they oblige. With lines that culminate his rise in the industry, to his long reign, Mr. Carter flies in the face of all the detractors like “record companies [who] told me I couldn’t cut it”. Jay stands alone on the stage, looking out at the people he owes his success to. The moving instrumental decrescendos, and Jay gives a salute before walking slowly into the darkness.
17. Ni**as in Paris (Watch The Throne)
The people continue shouting “Encore!”, then begin to mill away from the stage. A voice comes back onto the mic. ” You thought I was gonna leave y’all like that?! DROP THAT SHIT!” The snippet of Will Ferrell in Blades of Glory comes on, and everyone who’s anyone knows what time it is. Jay and Kanye have performed the contagious 2011 release almost countless times, famously performing it a record 12 times in a row at one of their WTT tour stops. The energy for this song is no different here. Jay is feeling it, speaking the lines that flaunt his unfettered success — “The Nets could go 0 for 82 and I look at you like ‘this shit gravy'” — over the crowd. Ye jumps on stage like a banshee — in a black Been Trill crew sweater, black Margiela pants, and black Yeezy Boosts — for the first “That Shit Cray”, and the crowd goes wild. He maniacally delivers his verse over the frenetic digitized instrumentals, with Jay playing hype man. They congregate at center stage for the song’s breakdown, getting the crowd to give them more. The two moguls look out in their iconic pose as the static instrumental fades…
18. Run This Town (The Blueprint 3)
All black everything. If the first half of the set was the regular season, this half is the all-star game and the playoffs combined. As soon as Rihanna’s ubiquitous voice comes in to sing the intro, it sets up the rest of the song that features a steadily explosive, guitar-laden instrumental. The three Roc Nation mainstays line up side by side, hyping Jay during his first verse. Rihanna, the clear standout of the song, slays the hook: “Life’s a game but it’s not fair, I break the rules so I don’t care”. All three have, if not broken the rules, completely reshaped them: Jay with the guidelines of what hip hop artists can do in the business world, laying out his own Blueprint; Ye finds new ways to express subversive art and speaking his mind when and where most don’t; Ri Ri redefines the idea of a pop songstress, moving out of the frame that she is “supposed to” fit in. We skip Jay’s second verse, and get straight to the Kanye verse that many know very well (I once rapped the entire thing on a crowded club dance floor, at the height of the song’s popularity — a proud moment). “What you think I rap for, to push a fuckin’ Rav-4?” Mr. West lets everyone know that he is certainly not averse to financial gains off his art. And there’s really no legitimate criticism of that motivation; if someone is driven to become a plumber for financial reasons, why not a rapper? This occupation alone is something that West has clearly moved past.
19. Holy Grail (Magna Carta… Holy Grail)
Oh hey, here’s a guy named Justin Timberlake too. In easily his grittiest, most raw vocal performance, JT trumpets out the sorrowful yet enchanting intro (and the chorus). The song comes back to the questions and issues that have been peppered throughout most of the songs in the set, things like the pull and the rush of the game, past traumas, and everything else culminating into the quest for meaning through the lens of fame. “One day you’re screaming you love me loud, the next day you’re so cold,” Justin reflects. He has seen his fair share of fickleness from the machine, as has Jay (see Kingdom Come, Blueprint 3, Tidal). Every move is scrutinized, every piece of being taken apart and magnified. Jay sheds light on the dichotomy of the bright lights: “Goddammit I like it, the bright light is enticing, but look what it did to Tyson”. The first verse ends off with a reference to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, calling to mind tortured frontman Kurt Cobain, whose battle with life through the filter of fame ended with a self-inflicted bullet to the head. The hook is offered again, and as the second verse starts, the instrumental elements drop away only to leave a snappy, echoing snare for Jay to go on. The crowd claps along, and the weight of his words amplifies even more than before. Timberlake comes back in to finish the job acapella. “One day you’re here, one day you’re there, you’re so unfair… Sipping from your cup till it runneth over, Holy Grail”.
20. Made in America (Watch the Throne)
The incomparable Frank Ocean starts the song off how only he can, with an amazing intro hook. The journey is indescribable, from being made in America, to ni**as in Paris, to officially “making it” in America. It’s a beautiful thing. Ocean walks slowly to join Jay on front stage, and Kanye comes back reenergized to deliver his verse in incendiary and passionate form. This verse perhaps best tracks Ye’s rise from where and who he was to where his today, albeit in a condensed fashion. “I told my momma I was on the come up, she said ‘you’re going to school, I’ll give you a summer’, then she met No I.D. and gave me his number… Ten years later, she’s driving a Hummer.” Imagine your mother meeting one of your eventual major mentors, the man to whom you owe a great portion of your success, where she initiates contact. Ye then gives insight into how he established a sense of loyalty with his adopted big brother: “Ni**as hustle every day for a beat from ‘Ye, and what’d I do, turn around give them beats to Jay/ And I’m rapping on the beast they were s’posed to buy, I guess I’m getting high off my own supply”. That first part is a big reason why there is such a relationship with the two: they took a different lane when a possibly better one was available, and made something really work. The product of that chemistry is the album which this song is on. Kanye had a hand in all but three beats on WTT, and Jay is featured delivering some of the more advanced rhymes in his catalog. He featured entirely new flows, mostly synthesized by running popular rap cadences through his own sonic and lyrical filter, to deliver arguably the most passionate and sharp verses he’s ever produced. In this verse, he follows the same pattern of detailing his first-person story in sixteen bars. The beat for Jay’s verse gets stripped away, much like the last song, and what’s left is the knock of the three bass kicks and the long, ethereal synth notes in the background. That’s all Jay needs to make the crowd’s collective heart beat, as he gets to the subtly powerful line: “I got my liberty, chopping grams up/ Street justice, I pray God understands us”. Frank plays the song out with his best instrument, and a spotlight encircles him in middle stage.
21. Young Forever (The Blueprint 3)
Frank sticks around to put his own take on the iconic Alphaville sample, sung on TB3 by GOOD Music recruit Mr. Hudson. He has experimented with covers in the past. Again accompanied by the long synth keyboard notes, Ocean plays around with the melody with unparalleled originality, leading the track up to the start of Jay’s dream-like lyrics. The bass beat never kicks in, because it doesn’t have to. All we hear to accompany the wavy synth are a digital screech in place of the snare, and Jay Z’s voice. He half-talks, half-whispers the rhymes in recognizable fashion: “Leave a mark that can’t erase neither space nor time, so when the director yells cut I’ll be fine, I’m forever young”. The beat stops. Jay walks off, gives Frank dap on the way by
as Frank continues to sing the infectious chorus. The crowd is clapping and singing along with him, all the more amplified now that there is just a voice on stage. He improvises different ways to sing the same lyrics before chuckling and finally leaving the crowd, who continue to sing the looped hook. The stage goes dark. We burst into ovation: claps and whoops and screams. We have won the day.