Man, what is hip-hop?
Everyone has a different answer. For me, it’s funk, with a real band playing, and a poet crafting poetry in real rhythmic time.
So I left Jay Z’s show at First Niagara Center on Thursday a happy man. He may be an entrepreneur, he may be signing the best athletes to his personal sports agency, he may be married to the woman who is most likely the most beautiful female pop star extant, but at heart, Jay Z is a rapper who knows how to get the funk out. Street corner or packed hockey arena, no matter: he brings it.
Jay Z brought it big time, as his Magna Carta World Tour rolled into Buffalo on Thursday. Judging from the way he treated the assembled, you’d never know we are considered a secondary concert market. The man brought the goods, and even if he kept us waiting an hour – the ticket said 8 p.m., and Jay Z went on at 9:05 p.m. – at least we had an adept DJ who was eager to spin the proper tunes for the pre-game, Drake, Ludacris and Tupac Shakur among the selections. (The crowd was going nuts during all of this, by the way: People were dressed up, eager to have a good time, and more than willing to dance in the aisles, even when the house lights were up.)
When Jay Z did finally take the stage, any ill will generated by the long wait evaporated rather quickly.
Dressed in a black leather jacket, black t-shirt, with black pants tucked into boots, the man arrived armed for bear, and tore into “U Don’t Know,” a killer jam from his “The Blueprint” album.
Right away, we felt that Jay Z was, at 44, a conduit to hip-hop’s deepest history. He may be as rich as Donald Trump, but when he is working, he’s working. This was serious New York City hip-hop – dirty, rough, and willing to take a knee before the music of James Brown.
A refreshingly sparse stage set – mostly bare rigging, a sort of bare pseudo-industrial look – encouraged us to look at Jay Z, and his musicians, too. Among them was Timbaland, aka Tim Mosley, perhaps the reigning godfather of hip-hop producers. Timbaland mostly worked the one-finger keyboards, the iPhone and the laptop throughout, but he was into it, and he earned a strong response from the crowd when Jay Z introduced him.
Even though Jay Z has rather publicly admitted that his most recent album, “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” is not his favored child among his abundant recorded offspring, he still played a ton of that album on Thursday. No one seemed to mind hearing “Crown,” “Beach is Better,” “Picasso Baby” – the best song on the album, and one of the strongest of the new songs performed on Thursday – and “Somewhereinamerica” in the set.
Still, old-school jams like the super funky “99 Problems” urged the most euphoric response from the crowd.
In addition to Timbaland, Jay Z’s band boasted musical director Omar Edwards, who also manned the keys, as well as a guitarist and drummer who routinely brought a level of rock virtuosity to the proceedings when called upon. These guys helped to keep it real.
Hip-hop is at a crossroads today. Does it want to subdivide into various strata of pop-inflected pablum? Shall it get more rough, more offensive, more “real”? Or will it simply own up to its own history and reassert its status as a voice for the voiceless?
On Thursday, Jay Z made it clear that hip-hop can still connect on a visceral, emotional, intellectual and physical level. And he brought the funk. That’s what hip-hop is all about.
The future remains unwritten, but Jay Z should be regarded as a significant source when that book is done.