When it comes to JAY-Z, it doesn’t matter if it’s rain or shine: Hov fans are still going to show out for him. With a line that wrapped around two blocks, the New York City faithful – some with umbrellas – were waiting to get inside JAY-Z’s B-Sides 2 concert on Friday (April 26), marking the reopening of the iconic Webster Hall venue.
In the distance, you hear DJ Khaled’s street team in full force, initiating chants about his upcoming album Father of Ashad due out May 17. Even as a performer, Hov is still about Roc Nation business first.
Once inside, you could feel the energy began to shift. Maybe it was because patrons were admiring the renovations of Webster Hall, which include a revamped lounge instead of the Marlin Room, additional bathrooms and bars, a singular focus on the Grand Ballroom with new lighting rigs and sound system, and overall, an emphasis on the modern look with an old grit.
Or the excitement came from a Roc-A-Fella logo disco ball positioned in the center of Webster Hall, providing a reminder of the label’s stamp in Hip Hop and the necessary opulence for the evening. Clearly, Hov wanted to make this event a big deal. After all, this was a continuation of his TIDAL X: JAY-Z B-Sides show from 2015, playing two nights of fan-favorite album cuts for nearly two hours. Four years later, the concept was still the same, but reaching a different kind of audience, one that mixed those same fans who can rap every word to “Imaginary Players” with his newer audience since 4:44 dropped. In a week that had Gunna, Dungeon Family, and Wu-Tang Clan performing in New York, this was the hot ticket. Those who were lucky to get one were about to witness history.
Three hours of DJ Clark Kent spinning that “super gutter shit” (his words), including extended tributes to Nipsey Hussle, you could scan the crowd to see who Jay attracts to one of his shows. Fabolous, Peter Rosenberg, and DJ Kool Herc were among Roc-A-Fella royalty like Kareem “Biggs” Burke, Briant “Bee-High” Biggs, Tyran “Ty Ty” Smith, Juan “OG” and Desiree Perez, and Lenny Santiago, a.k.a. Lenny S.
Of course, Beyoncé was watching from the VIP balcony above.
In the lead-up to Jay’s arrival, the floor was buzzing about who he would possibly bring out as his special guests. For the first B-Sides show, Jay brought out Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek, Jeezy, and Jay Electronica. With no opener, this was the best way to kill time, and Nas was a name that frequently came up in conversations. Would he come out for “Success?” Could years of feuding (and then reconciling) make any difference in how their chemistry would be on stage? What about Freeway?
Well, fans finally didn’t have to keep on guessing anymore. At around 10:15 p.m., the lights went dim and Clark Kent’s DJ booth was deconstructed for the band to warm up. You could see Just Blaze and Young Guru onstage with them. Hov was ready. This is about to be special.
With no formal announcement, Jay stepped up to the mic, wearing a black suit, a bowtie, and a bandana headband. In an unexpected opener, he rapped the lyrics to Kingdom Come’s intro, taking fans further down memory lane as he followed with “Some People Hate” and “Don’t You Know.” An artist like Jay who is 13 albums deep into his career, it’s surprising that he still remembers a lot of the words to these older songs, rapping them to near perfection. At some moments, though, Jay leaned on the crowd for assistance.
“The energy in here feels amazing. I appreciate every one of y’all,” he said.
The beauty of performing B-sides is hearing what songs from different eras pair well together. With Jay’s extensive catalog, you got plenty of those moments. And Jay couldn’t resist boasting that some of his B-sides were actually A-sides. “Lucifer” from The Black Album to “Some How Some Way” from The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse moved Jay enough to spit a freestyle during a break the song’s performance. He dedicated it to the late Nipsey Hussle, rapping a few lines about his impact and how he had more to give to his community.
“I told Neighborhood Nipsey stay close/There’s a 100 million dollars on your schedule, lay low/Tell your team to be on point in the places that they go/I never dreamed that he get killed in the place that he called home/How we gonna get in power if we kill the source?” he rapped.
Later, Jay ended the freestyle with: “I be going to sleep hoping Nip visit me/That young king had a lot of jewels to split with me/And we ain’t gotta leave the hood physically/But we gotta leave that shit mentally.”
After that, he kept the pace going, rapping classic after classic, bringing back teenage memories for some. “So Ambitious” from The Blueprint 3 to “Allure” was amazing. He continued with “This Life Forever,” which Hov said was Ty Ty’s favorite song, to “Young G’s,” making sure to let Biggie’s verse play all the way through. He did a passionate performance of “What’s Free” from Meek Mill’s Championships (not quite a B-side, but we’ll let it slide). Then, he got in his American Gangster bag with “Sweet” and “American Dreamin’.”
Next was “Success” and the first of two surprises: Nas. Jay and Nas have reunited on stage before, but this felt different in 2019, where both MCs are clearly in a league of their own as pillars of the genre. After “Success,” Nas did “The World Is Yours (Remix)” and “N.Y. State of Mind.” The best part was watching Jay and Nas play off each other; Jay would rap Nas’ lyrics and serve as his hypeman, bigging him up in the process. “That was special, my brother Nasir,” he said after they performed “Feelin’ It” over the “N.Y. State of Mind” instrumental.
Nobody could have predicted the next surprise. As “Welcome to New York City” played, you could sense the anticipation. There was no way Cam’ron would come out for this song after years of beefing, right?
But he did. Not only was this Jay and Cam’s first time performing “Welcome to New York City” together, but it was also a sign of growth: two former rivals, dapping up each other and making peace. Jim Jones joined them for “I Really Mean It,” and it was just powerful. Real New York gully rap. “Dipset, Roc-A-Fella, Roc Nation…Hov!” Capo said. “They my brothers,” Hov added after they exited the stage.
Jay finished the night strong with a run of Reasonable Doubt cuts – “D’evils, “Feelin’ It,” and “Friend Or Foe” – and more curveball songs that got fans hyped like “Dear Summer.” He did another freestyle off the top, stringing smooth lines like “the hustle never changed since I got up/the only thing that changed is the product.”
It’s true that Jay performs in New York a lot, with an upcoming headlining slot at Woodstock 50 in August. If you live here, you’ve probably seen him before over the course of his career and compared his former shows to now. But there’s something about a New York artist performing in their hometown, bringing out a sense of pride and connecting with their fans on a deeper level. It’s a unique experience you can only have in the mecca.
To that point, Jay’s show ended past midnight, leaving fans with “Thank You” and “Hovi Baby.”
“I thought I would lose you in a couple songs. Y’all was with me the whole way through,” he concluded. “The music I make is from the heart – right, wrong, or indifferent. You know, I’m not a perfect guy, so the music I make is just me. What I been through, what the people around me have been through. Let you see it. Even my flaws, I put out there. You can learn from my flaws or you can connect to my flaws. Maybe you can take it further than where I am trying to take it.”
“I appreciate every single one of y’all and how deep y’all dug into this catalog tonight,” he said. “I love you New York City. It feels good to be home!”
Can’t touch the untouchable, break the unbreakable.