How Jay Z Learned to Be a Headliner
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Jay Z is selling the highest-priced concert tickets of the summer of 2014, and you’re going to buy them … and be happy about it.
By Keith Murphy
The cocksure figure wearing the bulletproof vest is plodding through his lackluster “Hard Knock Life” tour headlining spot. It’s May 1999, and Jay Z should be basking in the glow of his coronation as hip-hop’s latest conquering hero. He is in the middle of his closing set on the highest-grossing hip-hop trek ever (up until that point), pulling in a then-impressive $18 million.
And yet the future rap deity born Shawn Carter sounds, acts, looks like a robot.
If you want to be a headliner, you better put on a headline show.
He put it best himself a few years ago to the LA Times: “I was a horrible performer.”
Yeah, this is the guy you just dropped top money on to see rock the stage this summer. But don’t worry, he figured out how to make it worth your while — eventually. Yet in his early days, Jay Z routinely got outshined by the “Hard Knock Life” tour’s more energetic, dog-obsessed MC. “DMX tore me to pieces,” he said to the Times of his former theatrical rival. “I remember being stunned. He had me really working. But I had to figure this out. If you want to be a headliner, you better put on a headline show.”
Which is why Jay’s current reign as hip-hop’s most prominent (and consistent) live performer is ripe with irony. This summer, the power couple Beyoncé and Jay Z will hit 16 cities throughout North America. The “On the Run” tour is just the latest in the seemingly endless run of shows for the Brooklyn road warrior. In the last three years alone, Jay has launched a sold-out solo outing (Magna Carter World Tour) and teamed up with everyone from Justin Timberlake to Kanye West to Pharrell Williams at Coachella this past April. Combined, Jay Z has pulled in $187 million in concert dough.
Jay has credited U2 frontman Bono with fine-tuning his charisma-driven live spectacle.
How’d it happen? The 44-year-old Jay has credited U2 frontman Bono with fine-tuning his charisma-driven live spectacle. “Bono knows how to exaggerate his movements and he knows how to have that conversation, without moving around much. He’s a dynamic performer,” Jay explained to Rolling Stone in 2009.
A betting man might point to Jay’s memorable 2001 appearance on MTV Unplugged with The Roots, where you can actually see Jay Z playing with the concept of live instrumentation and spacing. Those weapons later give the lyricist room to operate in a more impromptu, conversationalist setting.
Indeed, he has learned the role of performer well: Jay Z onstage is a DJ, an acappella rhymer; and he even runs the rock ’n’ roll music festival side of things.
You could argue that the superstar’s barrage of shows is just the rapper meeting the demands of his $150 million deal with concert promotion behemoth Live Nation. When Jay proclaimed, “I’m Young H.O., rap’s Grateful Dead / Back to take over the globe, now break bread” on his live-show staple Encore, it wasn’t a mere boast. He’s been reborn as a performer, and hip-hop — an art form that was long criticized as a flawed live genre — can now compete with the grandiose production values of a Rolling Stones gig. But of course, these guys knew that could be achieved all along.
Watch as Jay Z commands the stunned crowd at Glastonbury’s annual music fest in 2008.
- Keith Murphy, Keith “Murph” Murphy spars with brazen hip-hop moguls, Hollywood rebels, revered thespians, redemption-seeking pugilists and more. His work has appeared in VIBE, The New York Post, Billboard magazine, Essence and The Root. He’s a frequent commentator on CNN, Fox News, VH1 and A&E Biography.Contact Keith Murphy