Jay-Z has 99 problems. Justin Timberlake isn’t one of them.
The pair kicked off their Legends of the Summer Tour Wednesday at Rogers Centre, for one night the site of world’s most spacious sauna and big venue for titan bromance. The upbeat appearance, one of 14 stadium concerts taking place in a dozen North American cities (including Vancouver’s BC Place on July 28), was a dazzling, dizzying display of a duo supreme. Older hits were paraded, as were selections from each of the high-selling new albums from a sexy-bringing smoothie and a possibly past-it rhyme-spitting emperor. The high-watt show zigged, zagged and sometimes sagged; the tag-teaming was seamless, genre-swapping and just thorough enough. And if the star by an inch at least was Timberlake, the other guy – the one who takes out the garbage for Beyoncé – was no slouch (though at times he stood by).
It all began with a duet of sorts: Holy Grail is the lead track from Jay-Z’s just-christened chart-topper Magna Carta Holy Grail. Timberlake, topped in a bowler and dressed down in a dork-hipster-chic T-shirt and rolled-up pants, emoted the minor-key, melodic verse and hook. In turn, the Roc Nation leader, whose own white top was crisp, short-sleeved and buttoned up, rapped his parts about the trappings of fame, complete with references to the rise-and-fall puncher Mike Tyson: “All that money in one night, 30 mil’ for one fight / But soon as all the money blows, all the pigeons take flight.”
Something close to two-and-half hours later, the pair was at it on the penultimate Suit & Tie, appearing with champagne flutes for the suave number that had been premiered by the kingpins on the Grammy Award broadcast earlier this year. They didn’t toast each other, but they certainly could have. It is good to be them – only the jealous, misguided or spiritually superior would deny it.
Before the two hit the stage, a DJ spun Motown, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie – Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough and All Night Long, respectively (and appropriately, for what would follow). He stopped playing music long enough for occasional party-starting bromides. “Raise the roof,” he exhorted of course, in a building with one of the world’s highest ceilings.
If the roof was high, so were the stakes and ambition involved. A fine-looking audience – whose members paid for tickets priced $50 to $300 and merchandise which included $15 bow ties – were confronted with an extra-wide four-tiered stage, big enough for 14 musicians and four extra singers. The main part was framed with rectangles of diminishing sizes, which created an extra illusion of receding distance. The design was clean but immense – art-deco colossal.
The video screens on each side were devoted to performance shots; the one in the middle was dedicated to artful imagery that began with a Romanesque black-and-white scene of smoke and statues inspired by the Magna Carta album cover’s Alpheus and Arethusa sculpture. It continued with coiling snakes (to Timberlake’s Like I Love You), news anchors on old televisions (for Jay-Z’s Public Service Announcement), snow blizzards (for Jay-Z’s Song Cry) and silvery water (on Timberlake’s Cry Me a River).
The two mixed and matched, sharing the stage here and performing alone there. Timberlake, his voice high and boyish on emotive ballads and Michael Jackson-inspired pop, was more of a presence – at times with guitar and on piano and electric organ, both on his own and on the beblinged and backward-ball-capping rapper’s time.
Big reactions greeted Jay-Z’s Empire State of Mind (which was preceded by his cohort’s unsteady crooning of New York, New York), Tom Ford, 99 Problems and Hard Knock Life). Timberlake won with Senorita and What Goes Around ... Comes Around, the wound-licking, karma-warning single from 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, the actor/pop star’s previous album.
Of the two, Timberlake was the more starring and charismatic. This tour (which prefaces a fuller solo one this fall) is his first since 2007. (Jay-Z, happy as a co-headliner, doubled up with Eminem for 2010’s four-date Home & Home stadium joint in Detroit and New York.)
Hiatus over, the former boy-bander Timberlake was fresh and limber. His music comeback is in high, full motion. Is his back still sexy? Ask Jay-Z – he got a good look at it.