"I've been to D.C. a lot of times, but I've never been here before," Jay-Z said with a smirk as he surveyed the stately Kennedy Center Concert Hall last night.
The rapper had just introduced himself to the audience at the Africa Rising Music and Fashion Festival with "Say Hello to the Bad Guy," a song about reputation and reality. As with many Jay-Z songs, it's also about the arc of his life, from a drug dealer in Brooklyn's Marcy Projects to a jet-setting, basketball team-owning, Beyonce-canoodling hip-hop superstar with street cred and cache to spare.
"I come from the bottom/But now I'm mad fly," he rapped in that cool, restrained voice of his.
As set-openers go, in this particular setting, it was thematically perfect: Once a street hustler, now headlining at the home of the National Symphony Orchestra, a magnificent room where the seats are velvet, the chandeliers are Hadelands crystal and everything screams elegance.
(More after the jump.)
Hardcore hip-hop bum-rushed the building, and Jay-Z made himself right at home during a rowdy, overly cacophonous 75-minute set that spanned more than two dozen songs, including many of his biggest hits ("99 Problems," "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," "Big Pimpin'," "I Just Wanna Love U").
His intricate wordplay was sometimes drowned out by a nine-piece backing band, what with all those booming beats, rib-rattling bass drops, blaring horns, swirling synths and monster guitar riffs spilling out of the speakers. (The muddled, overmodulated mix - which also hampered John Legend's set of sweaty, swaggering, pleading soul - didn't help.) But when Jay-Z's band pulled back - sometimes doing so completely, allowing him to rap acapella, in a near-whisper - the result was striking, showcasing his disarmingly effortless flow, bracing honesty and vivid imagery.
Mostly, his songs featured contemptuous, ruthless gangster and mob motifs. But there were also lyrics about the fairer sex, including Jay-Z's verse from Beyonce's "Crazy in Love," as well as some political commentary - most notably "Minority Report," an indictment of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina. The song concluded with an expletive about President Bush - and an implicit endorsement of Barack Obama, whose visage flashed on a giant video screen at the back of the stage, much to the delight of the crowd, which filled the 2,518-capacity room.
There was no shortage of self-aggrandizing superlatives, either, with Jay-Z casting himself as "the king," "the God," "best rapper alive" and, yes, "the hood's Barack."
The audience - which included several ambassadors from African nations, plus Wizards all-star Caron Butler - responded with sustained approbation, as if to say: All hail the microphone-commander-in-chief!
It felt like a coronation - yet another celebration of Jay-Z's greatness.
Yet, technically, it was a celebration of Africa, a festival of music and fashion that was somehow supposed to promote economic progress on that continent - particularly in Nigeria.
To that end, Friday's event - the third of four Africa Rising festivals scheduled around the world this year - was a failure, as the messaging was horribly ineffective, offering little beyond platitudes, including a few scripted comments from co-hosts Paula Zahn (late of CNN) and Gene Robinson (of The Washington Post).
There were no powerful pronouncements from the concert's organizer, Nigerian media mogul Nduka Obaigbena, who simply thanked attendees for coming to "share this historic moment with Africa." He didn't explain how it was historic, nor why he was doing it - and neither did the Kennedy Center Playbills that were handed out at the door, where security guards used metal-detecting wands to check for weapons.
Fati Asibelua, creative director of the Nigerian-based company Momo, and designer Deola Sagoe more or less said that African fashion is hot after their respective shows, which featured more than 20 female models walking the stage - not least the Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek. (Tyson Beckford brought the beefcake.)
Nigeria's ambassador to the United States, Oluwole Rotimi, called Africa Rising "a new opportunity to showcase Africa" and said that "African cultures are not inferior to the cultures from other parts of the world."
The great Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour noted that there's more to Africa than war, AIDS and poverty - that there's a "positive Africa," too.
Which was more than the marquee musical acts - Jay-Z and John Legend - said during their combined two hours on stage, as the American stars barely even acknowledged the night's supposed theme either in song or banter. What was their connection to the cause? Dunno.
At least hip-hop singer 2Face Ibidia and Afropop artist D'banj are from Nigeria. Alas, while performances from both were promised, they never materialized during a show that ran more than an hour behind schedule and was filled with long periods of inactivity and dead air.
To wit: N'Dour was given a rousing introduction by Robinson ... and then didn't materialize for several minutes as the stage remained dark, the room silent. AWK-ward.
When he finally did emerge, N'Dour turned in the festival's most riveting performance, a 25-minute set filled with deeply soulful vocals sung in multiple languages over insistent, syncopated African rhythmic patterns and the night's funkiest drum breaks. The bespectacled artist wore all white (dashiki, pants, shoes) and was a commanding presence on stage, particularly when he went on soaring vocal runs, during which he sounded like a Sufi devotional singer.
Legend was in fine voice, too - at least when he could be heard over his band, which played with the intensity (and volume) of a rock-and-roll act. The singer-pianist was full of fire, his neck veins popping as he worked through his great catalogue of classic soul songs that happen to have been written in the new millennium; but the music tended to squeeze him out, which was a shame, given the strength of his vocal melodies and his great, golden tone.
When Legend sat down at his black Yamaha for a pair of solo piano ballads - the sensual new "Good Morning" and his first hit, "Ordinary People" - his voice was sonorous and supple, with an earthy purity. There was a marvelous intimacy to the two performances, as Legend's graceful piano work - particularly on the long-lined melody of "Ordinary People," an elegiac song about the complexities and challenges of relationships - framed his hot vocals perfectly.
And he delivered intimacy in another way, too, leaping into the crowd during a rapturous cover of Sly and the Family Stone's "Dance to the Music" and singing from atop a series of chairs in the orchestra.
Not your average Friday night at the Kennedy Center, in other words. Not even close - unless it's typical for KenCen patrons to rush through the aisles in the general direction of the stage when a performance begins, as with Jay-Z's set.
Later, Jay-Z and his sidekick, Memphis Bleek, engaged in a call-in-response bit involving a particularly profane word and a philosophical question about who, exactly, was in charge Friday: The ladies or the thugs.
The thugs won out, with Jay-Z leading the charge. "I came, I saw, I conquered," he announced in the brassy "Encore," at the end of his set.
Then, looking around the room once more, he said: "Beautiful building. We worked it."
Update: An edited version of this story appears, with photos, in Monday's editions.
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