Globe sports writer and frequent music contributor Julian Benbow was our eyes and ears at Jay-Z's show at Mohegan Sun Arena Friday night, the rapper's only New England stop on his new tour. Julian reports:
At this point, there are certain things about a Jay-Z show that are practically federally secured. He’s going to dip into a what seems like a bottomless well of hits. His live band is going to make those hits take on shapes, sounds, and lives of their own. And no one’s going to show him up.
All that was true Friday night at Mohegan Sun Arena. The stage was essentially a turntable-and-mike operation before Jay-Z graced it. Fabolous punched the clock – on at 8:40 p.m. off by 8:48 -- possibly the first person to make the occupation of rapping seem more like a gig at Office Max: Run through the old faithfuls, hit ‘em with the new singles, see if I can hit the crap tables.
Lupe Fiasco crept onto the stage, as a last-second sub for Ciara.
“We figured we'd just keep it all hip-hop tonight,” he explained.
White BBC T-shirt, khakis, and shades, he was as stripped down as his surroundings. But for 30 minutes he was constantly kinetic, tearing through songs from his two-disc catalog, dusting off the feature spot he did on Kanye’s second album, and performing his latest iTunes entry, "Shining Down."
It was plainly Jay-Z's show. But this time -- with tremors from his newest single, “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” still shaking through the rap circles -- Jay had also stirred things up days before at a show in Las Vegas. He spat an a cappella verse from the Blueprint 3, throwing non-shots at the Game, Jim Jones, and Dame Dash, addressing them by saying he wouldn’t’ address them. The Game took exception and fired shots back at Jay-Z from France and Spain, calling the soon-to-be 40-year-old rapper “old” while encouraging the foreign crowds to curse at him (in English).
And that storyline created the variable -- a curiosity about whether Jay-Z was aware of – or cared about -- the backlash enough to respond. He didn’t .
He did, however, continue to throw the one grenade he’s been throwing for a month now -- "Death of Auto-Tune" -- and it doesn’t seem to lose its potency. He pulled the pin as soon as he hit the stage. Clad in black “D.O.A.” T-shirt, back jeans, and silver sneakers with distinctly pink – highlighter pink – soles, Jay-Z jumped right in.
“La da da da, hey, hey, hey, goodbye.”
A binary counter ticked down from 10 minutes. The crowd counted down from 10 seconds. The once-bare stage turned into a set with smoke, lights, and six or so video screens – for Jay and Jay only – made it seem more like an event. The 10-piece band made the song sound like battle scenes in a war epic: crashing cymbals, scud-like explosions, alarming guitars that sounded more like sirens.
Fans knew the words and the premise -- Hov was playing "Call of Duty" against Auto-tune and everything it stood for (tight jeans, bright colors, debatable music).They also knew the words to nearly every other song in a catalog that stretched 13 years.
“Jigga what …”
“Show Me What You Got.”
“Hand up now wave!”
“U Don’t Know.”
“You are now lookin’ at one smart black boy.”
And so it went for about an hour and a half. Songs like “Takeover” and “Hello Brooklyn” were just teasers. He paused late in the show – sufficiently pleased with the energy from the crowd – and went on a little about that freestyle he had done in Vegas.
“You know normally what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas," he said.
Of course he had done the same thing in Chicago the show before, but he shared it with Connecticut. The shots at the Game, Jones, Dash and Jaz-O stung the same as if he were saying it for the first time.
It was only eight years ago when Jay-Z's line was that rap was his new hustle ("I’m treatin’ it like the corner, f--- with me if you wanna"). Now, falling more and more in love with the idea that he’s rap’s Frank Sinatra, that hustle is the live show. And he’s becoming just as good.