Back on stage in his native New York after a stint as a full-time businessman, Jay-Z was in the mood for his classics. And for a bit of politics.
Headlining The Meadows festival Friday night before one of artist Jeff Koons’ giant balloon dogs, Jay-Z hailed two outspoken voices on race relations: quarterback Colin Kaepernick and recently deceased comedian Dick Gregory.
“I want to dedicate this song to Colin Kaepernick. I want to dedicate this to Dick Gregory,” Jay-Z said to hoots of approval from fans amassed for the two-year-old festival in the parking lot of the New York Mets’ baseball stadium.
“I want to dedicate this song to anyone that was held back and you overcame whatever it was,” he said.The song was “The Story of O.J.,” the most controversial song of Jay-Z’s introspective new album “4:44.”
In the song, Jay-Z takes an anecdote from NFL running back O.J. Simpson — who allegedly, when accused of killing his wife and her lover, quipped, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” — and examines how racial prejudice still permeates US society.
Kaepernick a very different type of star than Simpson — has drawn fire from conservatives, notably President Donald Trump, for refusing to stand for the US national anthem as a protest over the country’s treatment of minorities.
After being released from the San Francisco 49ers, the biracial quarterback has found himself without a team, fueling charges that he has been blacklisted for his political views.
Performing “The Story of O.J.,” Jay-Z did not hold back on the song’s most contested line, emphasized over a break in the beats: “You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America?”
The Anti-Defamation League, the leading Jewish civil rights group, has criticized the lyric as perpetuating stereotypes, while not suggesting that Jay-Z harbors anti-Semitic views.
Jay-Z has brushed aside the criticism, saying the lyric in context is clearly meant to show the persistence of exaggerated images of ethnic groups.
Classic sound and look
Jay-Z — who with his wife, pop superstar Beyonce, has been a close friend of former president Barack Obama — has played a handful of recent shows and returns to touring next month after several years focused on his business empire, most notably streaming service Tidal.
Despite winning wide critical acclaim for “4:44,” Jay-Z devoted relatively little time to his new work, instead working through his best-known tracks.
He opened with the fast-charging “Run This Town,” delivered a punching version of “99 Problems,” chilled out to reggae with surprise guest Damian Marley and — inevitably for a concert in New York — led a triumphant “Empire State of Mind.”
His mind also appeared on classics when it came to his outfit — a white T-shirt of The Beatles’ “Help!” with sleek Nike sneakers and a black cap.
Jay-Z made another dedication on “Numb/Encore,” his collaboration with rockers Linkin Park. He mourned the group’s singer Chester Bennington, who killed himself in July, calling him “a beautiful man.”
Jay-Z ended abruptly, with no encore. But his choice of a final song was telling. The 47-year-old, a new father of twins and fresh from a career-boosting album, gave his take on Alphaville’s “Forever Young.”