Let’s start at the end. Either no one told Jay-Z how unbelievably bad Austin audiences are at calling for encores or he just decided to end his set 15 minutes early. It’s unclear which one happened.
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He logged a solid set. There were no special guests, but it was heavy enough with hits that no one seemed to care. The ending, however, was undeniably anticlimactic.
Encores are a tired trope of a bygone era and really have no place in a festival set, but Jay-Z closed out the main portion of his set with an emotional performance of “Numb/Encore” followed by a full crowd sing-along of “Forever Young.” It was a grand sweeping finale, wrapping the main portion of his set at roughly 9:38 p.m.
He signed a few autographs before he left the stage, which was nice, but then he was gone. The front section of the crowd cheered enthusiastically while the bulk of the massive crowd stood around looking confused.
“Y’all were so loud I had to come back,” the rap superstar lied when he returned a few minutes later. He launched into a ballistic version of “99 Problems.” The crowd went wild. And then he was gone again. At 9:45.
Once more the crowd stood around looking confused. About five minutes passed. Nothing happened. Then finally festival staff put a sign that said “goodnight” on the big screen. Ten minutes before park curfew.
How relevant is Jay Z in 2017? This is a question that lit up my Facebook feed in the weeks leading up to the fest. With the exception of a few hits, most notably “Empire” and his Kanye collabs, the bulk of his meaningful catalog lands in the pre-retirement section of his career, before 2004.
His new album “4:44” contains his most important work in years and his performance of the title track on ‘SNL’ a week before the fest was a breathtaking rebuke to toxic masculinity and a bold statement about his evolution as an individual. But most of the album is exclusively available on the Tidal streaming service, subscribed to by a small segment of the music listening public.
Outside of a few exclusive South by Southwest appearances, this was Jay-Z’s first show in Austin since 2009. The appetite for his performance was strong — the crowd that packed the space in front of the skyline stage was thick and ran deep — but not strong enough to sell out the fest.
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Performing with a live band obscured by a massive metal sculpture of a balloon dog created by Jeff Koons, he opened with a one-two punch of Kanye-free abbreviated versions of “Run This Town” and “No Church in the Wild.”
Then he took a moment to address the crowd. “I appreciate every single one of y’all tonight,” he said, before reflecting on the events of the past few weeks. “There’s lot going on in the world… a lot of evil in the world… but love will always conquer hate.”
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Then the groove for his “Black Album” hit “Lucifer” dropped. The core sample is an old reggae song by Max Romeo. He introed his track by playing the first verse of Romeo’s original: “I’m going to put on an iron shirt and chase Satan out of earth.”
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It seemed like a pointed statement about where his mind is.
Then he did a quick cut of “Lucifer,” his voice trailing off at the end “I’ve got to get my soul right…I’ll chase you out of earth,” he said as the beat naturally segued into his current hit “Bam.”
Jay-Z is a commanding performer. The crowd bounced when he said bounce, waved side to side on demand and formed a mosh pit at his request. Twice.
Kids in the middle of the crowd selfie videoed themselves singing off-key to “Empire State of Mind,” rapped every word to “Big Pimpin’” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” and listened politely to new tracks like “The Story of O.J.,” “Marcy Me” and “Family Feud.”
Close to the end of the set, he acknowledged the hurricanes that have devastated parts of the country including a wide swath of the Texas coast. He asked the audience to put two fingers in the air and send love to anyone who’s hurting, anyone who’s endured hardships. It was an appropriate intro to an ecstatically received rendition of “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem).”
From there he went into the “Encore.” It would have been a triumphant finale, except for the early ending. Which was just plain weird.