Jay-Z gives fans a peek at his celebrity


He fancies himself hip-hop's pre-eminent huckster, three-card monte personified, a used car salesman with beats instead of beaters.

"I sell ice in the winter, I sell fire in hell," Jay-Z informed a sold-out Pearl at the Palms on Saturday night. "I am a hustler, baby, I'll sell water to a well."

The song was "U Don't Know," a shout-along banger with shotgun-blast percussion where the emcee in question testifies to his marketing prowess, which lies somewhere between the calculating number crunching of a one-man ad agency and the smooth-talking savvy of a street urchin with a bunch of gold watches for sale inside his trenchcoat.

"Put me anywhere of God's green Earth, I'll triple my worth," he announced matter-of-factly, with little aplomb.

"I. Will. Not. Lose," he continued, each utterance doubling as its own declarative sentence.

And true to his words, Jay-Z is a master salesman, saving his best work for his toughest charge: himself.

Hip-hop, like professional sports, is an unforgiving vocation: Rhymers age like dogs, one year may as well be seven.

Just look at 50 Cent's shelf-life: Dairy products tend to last longer. It's the rare rapper who can continually reinvent himself and even unimpeachable greats like Nas, the Wu-Tang Clan, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and dozens of others eventually seem to lose a measure of their vitality, not to mention their commercial luster.

In rock 'n' roll, nostalgia is often embraced and celebrated, as cherished as some ragged old concert T-shirt that reminds its wearers of their youth.

But in hip-hop, the past is mostly significant only as a prelude to the present. You don't see pioneering veteran acts such as Run-DMC or Public Enemy still packing arenas the way that, say, even the Journeys of the world do.

And this is one of hip-hop's best attributes and greatest strengths.

Nevertheless, Jay-Z's been consistently topping the charts for almost 15 years now, throwing off rap's evolutionary bell curve like maybe only Tupac Shakur or Biggie Smalls might have done had they lived long enough to attempt as much.

He's done it all by never putting on any airs about himself as he's gone from small-scale drug dealer –– at least that's how he tells it –– to big-time record seller and entrepreneur with his own clothing line and sneaker endorsements.

For a lot of rappers, "keeping it real" means continually revisiting the street-level exploits that form the preface to many of their careers.

For Jay-Z, it just means being forthcoming about where he's at in his life at a given moment, and so he doesn't try to relate to his audience so much as give them a behind-the-curtains peek at his own celebrity.

Hence, his latter-day catalog is a bit like the "Robb Report" set to a beat.

"If you grew up with holes in your zapatos, you'd celebrate the minute you was having dough," he explained during the chest-pounding bravado of "99 Problems," a line that encapsulates much of Jay-Z's recent repertoire.

That song segued into "Show Me What You Got," a pop trifle that was the inverse of the tune that preceded it, with images of yachts and girls in bikinis flashing across the video screens at the back of the stage.

It's this balance of grit and glamour, skewed to the latter nowadays, that forms the basis of Jay-Z's appeal.

On the mic, he's an incredible technician, swinging between a cool nonchalance and an overheated spray of boasts.

"I'm so far ahead of my time, I'm 'bout to start another life. Look behind you, I'm 'bout to pass you twice," he rhymed acapella during "Hovi Baby," his 10-piece backing group momentarily silenced as his words packed just as much thunder as his band's substantial percussive might.

A cool, cocksure presence, Jay-Z donned a smile as wide as his vocabulary through it all, commanding the stage with a loose-shouldered, easygoing gait, bouncing on the back of his heels the way some prizefighters do just before springing into action.

He fired off his songs one right after the other with barely a pause. Perhaps the show's only dull moment over close to two hours was when Jay-Z ceded the stage for a brief interlude by run-of-the-mill gangsta Young Jeezy, who possesses abundant energy, but little else.

And then the man of the night ambled back on stage.

This was the last stop of his "Blueprint 3 Tour," and he ended his set by drinking champagne with his tourmates and pointing out crowd members individually by what they were wearing and thanking them for showing up.

A multimillionaire superstar, Jay-Z's no longer a man of the people, but for a night at least, he seemed happy enough to be among them. He took off his shades, doffed his hat, and stopped selling himself just long enough to be himself.

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at 702-383-0476 or e-mail him at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com.