(This review was originally posted at 2:03 a.m. Nov. 15, 2017)
As flames consumed his image on the video screens folded like protective books to conceal him from view, Jay-Z burst into “Kill Jay-Z,” the opening track on his current “4:44” album.
The screens slowly rotated, the stage at the center of Philips Arena arched upward like a “Star Wars” creation and fans got a peek at the black streak on the rapper’s white Pumas.
The slow reveal of Jay-Z at the start of his Tuesday night Atlanta return was a deliberate unveiling, and a theme that would continue throughout his potent performance.
With a left hand that constantly gesticulated, Jay-Z worked every corner of the octagon-shaped stage, briskly rolling through “No Church in the Wild,” the Auto-tune-assisted “Lucifer” and, in a nod to his mid-‘90s debut album, “D’Evils.”
A pack of live musicians – including a pair of drummers – stayed tucked into the pockets of the stage, ceding the platform to rap’s undeniable kingpin.
“You did it again, Atlanta,” Jay-Z said with a small grin as the sold-out crowd roared in response.
He had another message, too, that started with his jacket emblazoned with the phrase, “Blind for Love.”
“Love always trumps hate,” he repeated several times as he leaned toward the audience.
Jay-Z conducts his show like a rock star, yelling “1…2…3,” with the aplomb of Springsteen and prodding the crowd to repeatedly sing the refrains of “Run this Town” and “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love),” which featured a crisp beat and fleeting shots of downtown Atlanta on the video screens.
It’s not hard to see the evolution of Jay-Z onstage. He’s now a father, an admitted philanderer and half of the mightiest couple in music. But as he heads toward his 48th birthday, he isn’t about to turn in his trademark track pants for Dad jeans any time soon.
His silver tongue was nimble as ever on “****withmeyouknowigotit” and he commemorated the 14th anniversary of “The Black Album” with a spate of fiery reminders – “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” performed in a circle of lasers, and “99 Problems,” its bass reverberating throughout the venue, among them.
An unsurprising highlight was Jay-Z’s performance of “4:44,” a song he called, “the most uncomfortable” he’s ever written. But, he continued, “You can’t heal if you can’t reveal.”
He shed his jacket, rotated the microphone stand every few moments to face each section and bared himself for the audience. His closed eyes and bowed head between verses indicated that it is indeed uncomfortable to publicly recount your mistakes. After a quiet “thank you” at song’s end, the video books closed for a few minutes until Jay-Z returned in a haze of green light for the forceful “Bam,” ready to embrace a new chapter in this musical journey.
A mass of bouncing bodies accompanied “Jigga My *****” and the boogie groove of “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” still infectious 16 years later.
The thundering introduction to “Public Service Announcement” (“Allow me to re-introduce myself…”) and the meaty rock edge injected into “Family Feud” (which includes the priceless line, “What’s better than one billionaire? Two.”), kept the crowd holding their hands up in Hova diamond hand gestures, while a singalong to “Big Pimpin’” reminded of Jay-Z’s melodic gifts.
With so much burbling competition in rap, it’s too easy to take Jay-Z for granted.
Opening the show was a Jay-Z protégé, Chicago rapper-producer Vic Mensa, a young man with much to say.
With a guitarist and keyboardist situated behind him, Mensa, in dreadlocks and a black and red outfit, loped around the stage during “Didn’t I (Say I Didn’t)” and “U Mad,” interspersing his raps with soulful singing.
He expressed himself with unmitigated candor, which fits the modus operandi of a guy whose debut album is called “The Autobiography.”
“Memories on 47th St.” and “16 Shots,” dedicated to “all of the unarmed black men getting shot by police” were particularly bracing, while Mensa embraced his own demons on “Homewrecker” and “Wings.”
Mensa’s storytelling gifts were most effective on “Heaven on Earth,” written after the shooting death of his close friend and “big brother,” DARE. It was a raw, emotional performance complemented by sparse keyboards that showcased Mensa’s depth – an instinct that should always be celebrated.