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The most important performer in rap history, Jay-Z bridges fan divide with powerful ACL set

Ramon Ramirez

Jay-Z knows that he’s the least interesting part of “Run This Town” and “No Church In the Wild,” but the impeccably arranged songs boast huge choruses, and they make a mighty one-two opening punch at festivals. He also knows you can’t overuse the rap air horn sound effect, and that he can always lean on “Empire State of Mind” when people who don’t subscribe to his streaming music club nod off during “Marcy Me.”

He’s a business man; business, man; and master curator. But also the most important performer in rap history.

“There’s a lot going on in the world… Love will always defeat hate,” he told the American Express stage’s robust crowd two songs into his Friday ACL performance.

Wearing a white T-shirt and black cap, Jay quickly addressed complaints that his touring spectacle came devoid of special guests: Damien Marley popped on to join for “Bam.” (That’d be it for surprises, however.)

He’s an artist admired for his marketing acumen, and was likewise instrumental in bringing hip-hop into its live era. Evolving past the organized noise and spellbinding chaos of rap’s house party origins, Jay scaled the sound for Zilker Park—for where the Rolling Stones played.

Just look at what he’s done: Jay took the Tunnel Banger era of rap in sweaty clubs to Ticketmaster arenas. The late ‘90s “Hard Knock Life” tour united New York titans DMX, Method Man, and Redman, and went off without incident. His infamous feud with Mobb Deep manifested at the Summer Jam, and deflated its edge by propping up a playful concert. He turned rival 50 Cent into his opening act at the height of 50’s reign in 2003, and bought into Kanye West’s avant-garde theatrics at the perfect moment. 2001’s MTV “Unplugged” set was forward-thinking enough to tap the conscious and then-fringe Roots as the house band, and it made for hip-hop’s best live album.

He snarled back at Oasis’ public dismissal of his Glastonbury billing by performing the British rockers’ “Wonderwall,” winking at the idea that rap wasn’t fit to headline the historic festival less than a decade ago.

Now Jay has a deal with Live Nation and parlays his 1996-2003 catalog into rap’s most robust greatest hits tour. His ACL set culminates a recent years-long run where West, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, Drake, and OutKast planted the rap banner at ACL. Thank Jay in part for that, too.

But the 47-year-old seems most comfortable up there. Vintage tracks like the Just Blaze-produced “U Don’t Know” and “Public Service Announcement,” full of richly warped soul samples, proved that all rap needs is a DJ who’s packing loud hits and a charismatic person with a microphone who can rap while sleepwalking.

And then there was “N****s in Paris,” a bombastic celebration of underdogs where Jay asked fans to make a big circle pit and leaned on the song’s delirious chaos. He was so animated he botched the cadence: “I f*cked up, my bad.”

I’d understood everyone disliked 2009’s “On To the Next One,” but it had the pop hooks to captivate. “Izzo,” “Heart Of the City,” “I Just Want To Luv U,” and “Big Pimpin’” were crisply punctuated and boomed.

He dedicated “Encore” to the late Chester Bennington, whom he collaborated with on 2004’s “Collision Course.” He performed Pimp C lyrics, and shouted out anyone affected by Hurricane Harvey.

“You guys are going to change the world for the better I truly believe it,” Jay added, before playing late-era clunker “Young Forever.”

“Festival season is now over,” he said, noting that Friday marked the end of his 2017 fest engagements. His canned closer, “99 Problems,” was OK.

“That for me is an icon,” a UT-aged student told his girlfriend on the walk out.

Indeed Uncle Jay commanded respectful attention from a crowd that seemed smaller than Drake’s in 2015. But the performance was aimed at a multi-generational cluster of patients who’ve been exposed to scattered songs for 21-plus years. His gig served the savory pizza you order for everyone packed into the house during the holidays: Something everyone can get behind.

Like sister-in-law Solange crooned about 15 minutes before Jay’s set began across the park: “This… is for us.”