You should come around more often, Jay Z. Then maybe next time it wouldn’t be such a surprise how much you and the crowd each enjoy yourselves the way everyone did Saturday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
“I gotta admit, I was sleeping on y’all,” the Brooklyn-reared hip-hop icon said near the end of his first Twin Cities performance in nine years, whose fervent reception surprised even him.
“I thought you’d only be digging the hits like ‘Dirt on Your Shoulder.’ But y’all are some live [mambo-jambos].”
Gee, thanks, Jay, for realizing we’re a fly urban hub and not just flyover country. The standoffish feeling was mutual, though.
The real-life Shawn Carter’s last local gig at Target Center in 2004 with R. Kelly was a dud. His most recent albums have been mired in disconnected, look-at-me-I’m-rich lyrics. And his cancellation-happy pal Kanye West has tarnished the reputation of arena-level hip-hop tours locally (meanwhile, the independent Soundset festival reliably draws 20,000 local fans each year, proving we are indeed a town delighted by rappers).
Saturday’s show only drew about 9,000 fans, well below what you would expect for one of the top-selling recording artists of the past 20 years. The performance itself, however, exceeded expectations.
A few days shy of his 44th birthday, Jay showed a youthful spark and smiley earnestness throughout the first 45 minutes of the nearly two-hour performance — which actually amounted to only about 80 minutes of actual rapping, but whatevs. St. Paul was the kick-off city on the U.S. leg of his Magna Carter World Tour, so fans got him fresh and feisty but without any kinks that might have needed working out on the prior European leg.
Donning a backward leather “Brooklyn” ballcap and a Magna Carter Tour logo polo shirt — he would change to a black hoodie honoring artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in the second half — Mr. Carter opened strong with “U Don’t Know,” from his landmark 2001 album “The Blueprint.” He then went straight into “Crown,” from his uninspired new album “Magna Carta Holy Grail.”
As he would later remark on, the lesser-known new songs such as “Tom Ford” and “Picasso Baby” held fans’ attention surprisingly well, buoyed by a live energy not heard on record. Never mind that the latter song’s take on millionaire art-collecting is about as superfluous a hip-hop song as has ever been written. But then again, “Big Pimpin’ ” — paired with “Dead Presidents II” and “99 Problems” for a mid-set climax of older tunes — was a bone-headed braggadocious song, too, and the crowd mouthed along like it was a pledge of allegiance.
The show then dragged on for nearly 10 minutes as Jay let his A-list DJ Timbaland show off. Even worse, when he came back he used up 15 more minutes goofing around with fans near show’s end and monotonously pointing his cameramen toward them over and over (i.e., “You in the sparkly silver dress, I see you”). Perhaps the elder-statesman rapper can’t rhyme all night like his younger protégé Kanye (when Kanye decides to show up, that is).
After “Empire State of Mind” and “Hard Knock Life” — both sorely lacking backup vocalists to sing the hooks — Jay worked up toward the mushy finale “Young Forever,” which he added weight to by dedicating it to late Timberwolves star and Bronx native Malik Sealy, and by speaking about his own dream-fulfilling life story.
“I never get used to this feeling,” he said, soaking in the applause. Considering how little he comes around, we could take him at his word — and take note of how surprisingly genuine the concert felt on the whole, a quality that hasn’t exactly been Jay Z’s forte of late.
See the full set list and a photo gallery at startribune.com/music