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Jay-Z Concert Review House of Blues Sunset

Jay-Z roars out of retirement with wildly impressive L.A. show

Jay-Z 2007, courtesy of Universal Music GroupThere are hip-hop shows that cater to the mainstream, there are hip-hop shows that refuse to be anything but straight-up hardcore, and both types are very often by-the-numbers – bare-bones beats-and-rhymes displays, perhaps framed by a pair of scantily-clad, booty-waggin’ dancers, with most of the hits people came to hear often truncated to a verse and a hook before the star in question hurries into the next unsatisfying snippet.

Leave it to Jay-Z, one of the undisputed masters of the form and arguably the most powerful man in hip-hop, to avoid all of those clichés. In a rare and riveting performance Tuesday night at House of Blues Sunset Strip – his first of five small-venue stops to support his already acclaimed return-to-form American Gangster (read rave review here) – Def Jam’s CEO came roaring out of the boardroom with a 100-minute set that forcefully reasserted his credentials while further re-envisioning what a hip-hop show can be.

You can count the number of rap stars who consistently bring something fresh to the stage lately on one hand – Kanye West, the Roots, Common, Eminem and Nas and Beastie Boys when they feel like it. Jay’s design here may not have equaled that of, say, Kanye’s recent tours, let alone the reportedly massive production S. Carter put together for himself at the “I Declare War” bash two years ago in New York. Yet it still was an invigorating departure from the norm. Backed by a gussied-up 12-member band (including horns and backing vocalists) adept at bringing hard edge to even the smoothest grooves, Jay, in T-shirt, jeans and omnipresent shades, unveiled a showcase akin to Justin Timberlake’s club run leading up to his recent arena spectacle. That is, the focus was strictly on enlivening songs with organic freshness, rather than merely letting the DJ drop familiar beats over which Jay would exhale unerring but standard-issue verbalizing.

From the outset it was obvious this smokin’-hot-ticket show would be something unique – and, for the price, it had to be. Face value was $150, though the mobs outside hoping to score entrance surely would have paid triple. (When I told Desert Jeff I was put on the list but had to first head to Beverly Hills to pick up my ticket, he texted insisting I not bow out: “I know women offering sex favors for life to go to that.”) Yet much of the tightly packed throng inside, I suspect, didn’t pay a dime to stand around waiting for the man, hoisting their hands into diamond shapes while chanting “Hova! Hova! Hova!”

When Jay finally burst forth like a busted dam at about 10:30 with two tracks from American Gangster – the opener “Pray” and the bellowing boast “No Hook,” which everyone in the crowd seemed to know word-for-word – it was clear the record-release aspect of this gig wouldn’t be taken lightly. Indeed, Jay served up more than half of his second comeback disc since retiring in 2003, from Neptunes-abetted cuts like “I Know” and “Blue Magic” to the Nas-assisted “Success” (not that the Neptunes or Nas were on-hand, mind you).

Yet though the album, recorded in a four-week rush of inspiration after seeing Ridley Scott’s biopic of the same name, often aims for a silken blaxploitation vibe, here Jay and his band attacked every bit of it with the sort of brute strength the mogul hasn’t exhibited since the late ’90s. Only the toughest parts of The Black Album on offer this night – including “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” and a stinging “99 Problems” that had the band breaking into AC/DC’s “Back in Black” during its later verses – could measure up to the intensity Jay-Z naturally oozed during newer tracks.

Looking again over the 28-song set list (with only a small handful presented in abbreviated form), I imagine some die-hards might grumble about what was missing – nothing from his seminal ’96 debut Reasonable Doubt, most everything culled from 2001’s The Blueprint forward, with five alone revived from The Black Album. Whatever might have been lacking, however, was compensated for by cameos – Roc-A-Fella crew members Memphis Bleek and Beanie Siegel and Freeway for a trio of tunes, fellow entrepreneur Diddy and producer Jermaine Dupri for “Encore.” (Diddy, who helped shape the sound of American Gangster, spat a few rhymes. Dupri just roamed the stage smiling.)

Not that Hova needed help to remind that he’s just about the most charismatic, compelling and, above all, precise rapper still somehow in the game. His show is so remarkably engaging, it deserves broadening and bolstering via a larger and longer nationwide outing. His contract with Def Jam is up in January, and Entertainment Weekly (to name only one source) suggests maybe he’s ready to leave corporate business to someone else and get back to being the Jay-Z fans still crave.

Here’s hoping – hip-hop definitely needs a visionary like him on the front lines, not behind the scenes.

… Ben