Posted by By J. Freedom du Lac Washington Post Staff Writer on
"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 on Friday.
"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 on Friday. The rapper had just introduced himself to the Africa Rising Music and Fashion Festival audience with "Say Hello," 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, Beyoncé-canoodling hip-hop superstar with street cred and cachet 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.
Jay-Z made himself right at home during a rowdy, 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"). Hardcore hip-hop had officially taken over the building.
Jay-Z's 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, pleading soul -- didn't help.) But when Jay-Z's band pulled back -- sometimes doing so completely, allowing him to rap a cappella in a near-whisper -- the result was striking, showcasing his disarmingly effortless flow and vivid imagery.
Mostly, his songs featured contemptuous, ruthless gangster and mob motifs. But there were also lyrics about the fairer sex, including his verse from Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love" and a freestyle set to Estelle's "American Boy," 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-seat room.
There was no shortage of self-aggrandizing superlatives, either, with the cocksure emcee casting himself as "the king," "the god," "best rapper alive" and "the hood's Barack." The audience responded with sustained approval, as if to say: All hail the microphone-commander in chief!
It felt like a coronation. 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 ineffective, offering little beyond platitudes. 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 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.
Nigerian Ambassador Oluwole Rotimi called Africa Rising "a new opportunity to showcase Africa" and said, "African cultures are not inferior to the cultures from other parts of the world."
Fati Asibelua, creative director of the Nigerian-based company Momo, and Nigerian designer Deola Sagoe more or less said African fashion is hot after their respective shows, during which more than 20 female models walked the stage -- not least the Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek.
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. That was more than the marquee musical acts, Jay-Z and John Legend, said during their combined two hours onstage, as the American stars barely even acknowledged the night's supposed theme.
For an event intending to celebrate Africa, the placement of two Americans atop the bill was at least mildly curious. Particularly given that N'Dour wound up producing the night'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 festival's funkiest drum breaks. The bespectacled artist wore all white (dashiki, pants, shoes) and was a commanding presence onstage, particularly when he went on soaring vocal runs and sounded like a Sufi devotional singer.
Legend was in fine voice himself, 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 was full of fire, his neck veins popping as he worked through his catalogue of classic soul songs that happen to have been written in the new millennium, but the band tended to squeeze him out -- a shame, given the strength of his vocal melodies and his great, golden tone.
When Legend sat down at his black Yamaha for the sensual new "Good Morning" and his first hit, the elegiac "Ordinary People," his voice was sonorous and supple, with an earthy purity. There was a breathtaking intimacy to the two ballads, with Legend's graceful piano work framing his hot vocals perfectly.
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.
Not your average Friday night at the Kennedy Center, in other words. Not even close: When Jay-Z began his set, fans flooded the aisles and pushed toward the stage. Later, Jay-Z and his sidekick, Memphis Bleek, engaged in a call-and-response bit involving a particularly profane word and a philosophical question about who, exactly, was in charge: "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.
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