So NME is in the Albert Hall with Chris Martin, Gwyneth Paltrow and a 28-piece orchestra. We’re here to see the world’s greatest street hustler, Jay-Z. After ‘retiring’ in 2003, the Jiggaman is back and he’s gone upmarket – but can his stories of Brooklyn grit survive the polish?
The answer is yes – although whatever sense of occasion the Albert Hall adds, the horrible sound tonight quickly tarnishes. The beats don’t always thump as they should and for much of the set the orchestra are so inaudible they might as well not have bothered sawing away. It’s just as well Jay-Z is still the most authoritative and technically dextrous rapper in the business. Indeed, the truly showstopping moments occur when the music drops out and he raps a cappella. After 10 years, no-one can touch him when it comes to vivid imagery, ingenious rhyming and sheer tongue-twisting flow. Then there’s the back catalogue. ‘Big Pimpin’’, ‘Can I Get A…’, ‘99 Problems’ – an arsenal of hip-hop landmarks.
Oh, and there are special guests too. Beyoncé contributes a red hot ‘Crazy In Love’ and ‘Déjà Vu’, but tonight’s real surprise is an appearance from Jay’s New York rap peer Nas. Given that the pair engaged in a vicious (and riveting) lyrical battle five years ago, the fact that they’re now sharing a stage to perform three of his classics says a lot for the maturity of both men, especially as a similar feud ended the lives of hip-hop heroes Tupac and Notorious BIG. It’s less easy to see what Apple and Moses Martin’s parents are contributing however, apart from tomorrow’s headlines. Gwyneth’s vocals on ‘Song Cry’ sound like she’s back in labour, while Chris Martin’s English public school rendering of the chorus to ‘Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love)’ makes you pine for the Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland sample of the original.
As Jay beams, “We’re making history” though, the point is clear – this is about him being accepted at mainstream rock’s top table, along with Bono and the rest of the Live8 mob. Given that he’s more talented than all of them, that position, like the world, is there for Jay-Z’s taking.