Jay-Z at the Riviera Theater


October 9, 2001



Ask a diehard hip-hop fan about Jay-Z and he'll invariably praise the Brooklyn rapper's business acumen (his company Roc-A-Fella has branched out from records to film to clothing) and his ability to connect with mainstream tastes ("The Blueprint," his third album in two years, has been the No. 1 record in America for the last three weeks).

And the music? Well, as rappers go, the brother is certainly a helluva businessman. And can Jack Welch or Bill Gates rap?

Hip-hop superstars, especially the corporate gangstas, have always had a finite lifespan--remember Master P? While fans respect their self-made wealth, it is their alleged connection to the hard-knock life of the streets that brings them success, and this is awfully hard to maintain once one has become a millionaire.

In an effort to walk that tight rope and try to "keep it real," Jay-Z is taking his Blueprint Lounge tour to relatively intimate venues, with a stage set to look like a bar that is populated with a crowd of friends, some of whom perform (cohorts Memphis Bleek, Beanie Sigel and Freeway) but most of whom just sit around drinking and smoking.

On Sunday, the first of two sold-out nights in Chicago, Jay-Z delivered a supremely professional, perfectly paced 70-minute arena-rap show within the cozy confines of the Riviera Theater. As with any superstar who appears up close and personal, the setting highlighted both his strengths--at 31, the former Shawn Carter can illuminate a stage with sheer charisma--and his weaknesses, which were considerable.

Jay-Z's conversational style was really nothing special. He had little to say beyond praising his own economic skills and tough-guy self.

And when his backing tracks weren't pedestrian and predictable, they were just plain cheesy, a la the mega-hits "Hard-Knock Life" and "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," both of which were delivered in truncated form early in the show.

Sure, these and other tunes were a hair more credible than the lowest-common-denominator product of P. Diddy/Puff Daddy, or of M.C. Hammer, really the originator of this kind of hip-hop showbiz hustle. But is that really anything to brag about in an art form that has produced the edutainment greats Chuck D., Ice Cube and KRS-One?

The set did not avoid the dreaded call-and-response hip-hop cliches of left side/right side, ladies-in-the house/fellas-in-the-house chants, though Jay-Z did try to put an original spin on them (the "fellas" became "dawgs"). He also pandered with the obligatory shout-outs to the dearly departed Biggie, Tupac and Aaliyah. And of course there was a moment of silence for the victims of Sept. 11.

It was during these moments that Jay-Z was most obviously fronting. For giant culturally minded corporations such as Nike or Starbucks, there is no genuine emotion beyond the desire to endear themselves to the public so that their logos can proliferate. So, too, with a one-man brand like Jay-Z, who only truly feels sorrow and loss if there remains a chart he isn't topping or a CD he isn't selling.

This isn't a moralistic judgment; plenty of engaging, good-time pop music has been made by thoroughly empty individuals. At his best on Sunday night, Jay-Z delivered happy, party-time grooves designed to keep the joint hoppin', and he did it well indeed.

If you can live with expecting little more than that from hip-hop, then Jay-Z may be its ultimate star. But if you're searching for meaning or art, well, you've been played for a sucker by another giant company that stresses marketing and money over music.