Before Jay-Z took the stage at TD Garden on Saturday night, the video screens suspended from the rafters showed archival footage of his ascent — video clips, promo photos, snippets of him in cigar-smoking repose. Those images eventually became subsumed by flames — a metaphor for the ego death that Jay Z undertook on his latest album, “4:44.”
Released in June, “4:44” displays a new side of the seemingly larger-than-life rapper; it delves into his personal life deeply, with songs about his marital problems, his mother’s sexuality, his friendships, and his experiences as a successful black man in 21st-century America. It’s taut yet deep, with the MC’s intricate verses taking on a new heft because of the vulnerability lurking within his booming delivery.
Saturday’s fast-paced show, performed in the round on a black-box stage ringed by a pyrotechnic band, had ample room for the braggadocio-stuffed hits that have helped Jay be a constant pop-cultural presence over the past two-plus decades — the lush yet pointed “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love),” the darkly anthemic 2009 offering “Run This Town,” the “Annie”-flipping 1999 smash “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem).” But his performances of the “4:44” title track, an extended apologia to his wife Beyoncé that digs deep into his shortcomings as a husband while looking toward a better future, and “Smile,” which samples Stevie Wonder’s hope-tinged 1976 call “Love’s in Need of Love Today” while frankly discussing the pain of his mother being closeted and other aspects of his upbringing, kept the night’s intensity level high.
Jay’s banter reflected the serious mood of “4:44.” There was party-minded chatter, sure, but he also dedicated the ruminative “The Story of O.J.,” which grapples with the economics of prejudice, to recently passed barrier-breakers like Dick Gregory and Muhammad Ali, and spoke passionately about how snuffed-out young lives robbed the world of future Barack Obamas and (after briefly consulting with the crowd on the Celtics’ key player) Kyrie Irvings. It elevated the social resonance of crowd-pleasers like “99 Problems,” which blends pile-driving riffs with a first-person account of being pulled over for a traffic stop, and the “we-made-it” celebration “[Expletive] in Paris,” which was a shout-out to, he said, “all the dreamers.”
The night’s final song, the 2004 Linkin Park collaboration “Numb/Encore,” was played in honor of the rock alchemists’ late lead singer, Chester Bennington, who died by suicide earlier this year, with Jay asking the audience to check in on their loved ones who might be struggling from mental health issues. The high-caliber performance that followed was a bittersweet ending to a show that was, at its core, about survival, and the strength that can result from opening up to others.
Jay-Z: The 4:44 Tour
With Vic Mensa
At TD Garden, SaturdayMaura Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.