NEW YORK — Jay-Z is probably one of the few MCs who could sell tickets to a rehearsal and still pack a major venue to capacity — which is exactly what happened on Saturday night.
It should give some idea of the anticipation for the Reasonable Doubt 10th anniversary show that Jay sold out the Nokia Theater here, where he, his backing band and a 50-piece orchestra did a rough performance of the concert, which went down for real Sunday night at Radio City Music Hall.
And not surprisingly, at Sunday night's show, Jay had fans on their feet for nearly every second he was onstage as he rolled through his classic debut album in its entirety.
Reasonable Doubt might not have the radio hits or club bangers of many of his other albums, but it may be Jay at his most lyrical — and certainly at his most honest, according to him.
"It's absolutely the realest album of all time," Jay said Sunday night after the performance. "It's just the time I was living, what I was going through. It was all real. It looked at life from so many aspects, from betrayal on the 'D'evils' to being vulnerable on 'Regrets.' [There are] so many different emotions on that album."
"It was real," agreed Young Jeezy, who was in the crowd along with other celebs like Alicia Keys, Chris Tucker, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Jadakiss and Island Def Jam head L.A. Reid. "That was my bible, my manual, my guide. He opened up doors for cats like me. If he and the other OG cats didn't open up and express what they was feeling, it would have been no avenue for me to travel. 'Can't Knock the Hustle' [was my favorite song] all day. I don't even wanna tell you what I was doing when that album came out — real things."
"Me and Jay talk about this all the time, Reasonable was such a classic, we feel it could never be duplicated," Irv Gotti said. "We was all still in the streets — you can't duplicate that energy, when you still running around, doing things. That's why that album is still raw, because of what he was doing at the time. He was making that transition [into a career in music]. If you listen to that record, he's telling you: 'You about to see my life change.' "
Reasonable Doubt was an underground, independently released LP at the time of its release, and obviously Jay has amassed a more mainstream audience in the 10 years since it hit the streets. He hasn't performed most of the records on the LP for several years, and some he doesn't remember performing at all. He had to go back do some homework before touching the stage.
"It was almost like looking at a photo album, it takes you back to that time," Jay said of revisiting the album's lyrics. "I was living with the album, 'cause it's a lot of text. It's not, 'It's ... about ... to ... go ... down.' It's: 'Who wanna bet us that we don't touch leathers/ Stack cheddars forever, live treacherous all the etceteras." [The album] is very wordy, so it was very difficult — difficult on the breathing [while performing], difficult re-learning all those words again. But it took me back to that time."
Jay opened his show Sunday night by taking it back to the essence: He had Pain in Da Ass do the Al Pacino-in-"Scarface" impersonation that starts off the album.
Jay then arrived onstage, driven in a vintage white-and-tan Lexus GS 300 that looked to be in mint condition. With musical director/Roots drummer ?uestlove leading the band from behind his drum kit and Just Blaze pushing buttons at the DJ booth, the ride back to 1996 was under way.
As Jay had promised, he performed the album in its entirety, from last song to the first, which meant that his lead cut for the night was "Regrets," track 14 on the original album (later editions appended "Can I Live II" to the end). In an all-white suit and black tie, Hov strolled the stage like he was literally walking down memory lane, smoothly delivering his message.
"I sold it all, from crack to o-pium/ Scopin' the whole situation like, 'Dayuumn!,' " he rapped, as several thousand spectators rapped along.
The next track, "Bring It On," brought an answer to one of the evening's major questions: Would Jay bring out his onetime close friends Jaz-O and Sauce Money, who rap on the album version? (See: "Jay-Z To Perform Show Commemorating 10th Anniversary Of Reasonable Doubt.") Although Sauce has never spoken out against Jay, over the years Jaz has had some unkind words for his former friend.
Sauce, who starts off the song's album version, came out wearing a black suit and let loose his verse; Jay followed with the second set of 16 bars. Most people were expecting Jaz to come out for his part as the song's clean-up hitter, but the music just faded out: Jaz was nowhere to be seen. A handful of fans in the upper balcony even started chanting Jaz's name later in the show, which got a chuckle out of the Jiggaman. No one, however, expected Memphis Bleek to be a no-show: He and Jay have been thick as thieves for years. Bleek came out in a suit as well to perform "Coming of Age," and said it's the first time in at least seven years they'd performed the song.
"Back in the day, I was really young, so the rhythm was off [when I rapped it live]," Bleek said after the show. He recalled recording the track during more modest times. "It was crazy, we was in Clark Kent's basement [studio], eating Wendy's bacon cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets all day. I didn't think, coming from the basement, it would be what it is today."
Foxy Brown echoed that sentiment when talking about the record that really kicked off Jay-Z's radio reign, "Ain't No N---a." Clad in a black dress and delivering her patented ferocity, she joined Jay for the song on Sunday in perhaps the evening's biggest surprise appearance — not because she and Jay had a falling out, but because Fox recently suffered a hearing loss and had to undergo surgery (see "Foxy Brown Says She Hasn't Heard A Thing For Six Months"). She called being able to get onstage a blessing.
"It feels good that 10, 11 years after, we're still on the top of our game," she said. "It felt great to celebrate with him and great to get my hearing back." Of the song's recording, she recalled, "It was the best experience, because we weren't famous at all. We was Shawn and Inga — I didn't have the name Foxy Brown when I was doing the record."
As the show progressed, the orchestra (which Jay dubbed "the Hustlas' Symphony") and ?uest and the band (dubbed the Illadelphonics) kept the live music flowing like champagne. At times, they spruced up tracks like "Regrets" to add more energy than is present on the album version (see "The Roots' ?uestlove Says Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt Show Will Be 'A Challenge' "). Sometimes they switched up tracks: On "D'evils," they played the beat to Snoop Dogg's "Murder Was the Case" on the last verse. And for "22 Two's" they played the beat for A Tribe Called Quest's classic "Can I Kick It?" when Hov started yelling out that song's title after the first verse.
Hov, who called himself "Old Brown Eyes," did a little improvising of his own, going into a freestyle called "44 Four's" that began over the "Can I Kick It?" beat.
"Roc-A-Fella forever, Hov for life/ First debut classic, first album four mics/ I should've got five but n---as lack foresight." He then told ?uestlove to stop the beat so he could rhyme a capella.
"I did it for the hustlas, for the ghetto, for their plight," he continued, after telling the crowd to ease up on their "Hova!" chants so he could continue. Every time he said "four," numbers appeared on the giant screen behind him until they reached "44" with the song's conclusion. "For all the time it rained, 40 days, 40 nights/ Your boy takes off like I been stripping all my life/ ... 44 fours, mutha-----, I'm nice."
"I am the nicest!" Jay triumphantly declared, with diamond hand signs and Hova chants ringing through the air like fireworks.
For "Brooklyn's Finest," Jay rapped both his and Notorious B.I.G.'s verses, referencing his recent boycott of Cristal by replacing Big's words with "Dom P. forever."
After "Politics as Usual," of course, came "Can't Knock the Hustle": the first song on the album and thus the last from it performed on Sunday night. This record too had a switch: Instead of Mary J. Blige, who's preparing for her Breakthrough Tour, Jay brought out Beyoncé, who was also dressed all in white. The couple looked so snazzy together they could have been at their wedding reception as Beyoncé belted out the song's famous lyrics.
"I'm takin' out this time, to give you a piece of my mind/ Who do you think you are?/ Baby, one day you'll be a star."
As the song ended, after nearly 90 minutes of performing his "baby" for the fans, it looked like no one wanted to go home — and an announcement was made that Jay would be coming back after a 10-minute break. When he returned, Hov and Memphis Bleek were dressed down in jeans, and for another hour, Jay and the crew ran through abbreviated versions of records he regularly performs, such as "PSA," "Big Pimpin'," "Money Ain't a Thang" and "U Don't Know."
En route to the afterparty at New York's famous Rainbow Room, Jay had some sweet words for Mary J's replacement. "I think it was a beautiful thing," he said of B's performance. "[She's] another important singer of our time. Of course, Mary is the Queen, but [Beyoncé] is making a mark in this industry. I think she's going to be remembered as one of the greats of all time."
So after digging into his vaults and rocking with some never-classics, which song was Jay's favorite of the show? " 'Can I Live,' " he said. "It's one of my favorite songs, period."
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.