NEW YORK Before Jay-Z took the stage Saturday night at the Hammerstein Ballroom, the second date on his Blueprint Lounge Tour, yet another Jay nickname was disclosed: Rocky.
"Because he beat the odds," said Hot 97 DJ Fat Man Scoop, who introduced the show's main attraction.
Jay, who has the #1 LP on the Billboard 200 albums chart (see "Jay-Z's Dynasty Continues As Blueprint Debuts At #1"), was able to reach the top spot despite rampant bootlegging of The Blueprint weeks before its release and the country being sent into a tailspin from terrorist attacks the day the album came out. Jay's biggest battle, however, may be coming from within.
"We're not too excited; there's a tragedy going but we're going to do what we do," Memphis Bleek, who's accompanying his mentor on the tour, said Wednesday before the tour's opening show in Baltimore.
A funky soul track with a looped sample of a man's voice singing, "Hovvvva, Hovvvva" which was prepared for the tour by Jay's record spinner, DJ Scratch served as entrance music.
Wearing a white tank top, matching black Roc-A-Wear jeans and a shirt with an American flag stitched on the left sleeve, Jay took to the stage with an a cappella freestyle.
"I dropped the same day as the twin towers," he said stoically, referencing the September 11 strike on New York's World Trade Center.
Then came the name change game.
After the set's first official song, "Izzo (H.O.V.A)," where the audience sang in unison, "H to the izzo," Damon Dash joined Jay at the front of the stage to dance to The Blueprint's "Hola' Hovito," an ode to another nickname.
"I'mma change my name," Jay told Dash as he segued into "Jigga My N---a." Meanwhile, about 30 of his friends and some family members, including Beanie Sigel and Bleek, filled the lounge-themed stage set (where, among other things, the DJ's turntables were located behind a fake bar).
Most of the fans cheered when Jay asked how many of them owned a copy of his latest album, signifying that it was OK for him to perform some of his newest hood-flavored ditties.
The thumping bass of "Takeover," which features Jigga spewing venom toward Nas and Mobb Deep, kept the crowd amped as Jay recited the lines he first made famous this summer during his performance at the Hot 97 Summer Jam in New York (see "Jay-Z's Special Guest A Thriller For Summer Jam Crowd").
"R.O.C., we runnin' this rap sh--," he triumphantly chanted with the crowd now chiming in.
"The takeover/ The breaks over, n---a," he said. "The God MC, me Jay Hova." As the verse neared its end, Jay held the mic to the crowd for it to fill in his line, "Ask Nas/ He don't want it with Hov," which they roared back at Jay, garnering an approving nod from the Brooklyn-born MC.
Jay will never be seen shaking a leg with 10 background dancers like P. Diddy. He doesn't run around the stage growling like DMX or Busta Rhymes. And as for the stage dives that artists such as Method Man and Redman do, you'll see Jay hugging Nas on "TRL" before he ever mimics that move. As was the case with his previous outings, it was the energy of the music that won over the crowd. The obvious fun his entourage had behind him Beanie Sigel actually crip-walked during "Change the Game" also resonated with the spectators.
After his man Beanie ripped a solo spot a few songs before, Bleek had his turn to step up to the mic for one of his tracks, "Is That Your Chick." M-Easy (one of Bleek's other go-by names) did a good job of playing it off, though he started the cut by going into the song's second verse and Jay had to remind him what was what after a few bars. Memph then went into rhymes from the first verse without missing a beat.
Meanwhile, Jay warned the audience his memory might not be too sharp before he launched into "Brooklyn's Finest," the duet he recorded with the Notorious B.I.G. "Let me see if I remember this one," he said.
He did make it through the shortened first verse without a hitch while the crowd filled in for his deceased co-star. He wasn't as fortunate performing his 1997 classic "Where I'm From," which saw him stumbling through the opening lines, "I'm from where the hammers rung/ News cameras never come/ You and your mans hung on every verse in your rhyme." Again, he forewarned the crowd that that might happen.
Luckily, he had another nickname to fall back on, simply addressing his misstep by saying "f--- it," before performing The Blueprint's most commercial tune, the clubland rotator "Jigga That N---a."
The pace slowed for the punch line-filled "Girls, Girls, Girls," where Jay talked about his many women, from a "hoodrat chick" to a young girl who throws tantrums if she doesn't get a new pair of Reebok sneakers.
As the soulful beat faded, Jay took a break to get serious, noting that the country was facing a trying time, but that "We movin' through it."
Around the 60-minute mark, Jay, who encouraged his fans to meet him soon after, went into R. Kelly's "Fiesta" remix.
"After the show it's the after party," he rhymed, signaling streams of confetti to fall from the top of the venue.
R. Kelly didn't appear for a special show cameo, nor did anyone outside of the Roc clique, for that matter. Just the self-proclaimed king of rap, his court and his followers took the stage. After all, it was the plan to make the tour intimate Jay said this summer the reason he was playing clubs and theaters rather than arenas was so he could look in the balcony and see people's faces.
For a full-length Jay-Z interview, check out "Jay-Z: Blueprint For Success."