Last night, Justin Timberlake and Jay Z brought their Legends of the Summer stadium tour to Chicago’s Soldier Field for a two-hour performance that ran close to the midnight hour. Shortly after, following some crazy foot traffic and a loud train ride later, Publisher Alex Young and Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman discussed the set’s strengths, faults, and impact on the industry and hip-hop in general.
Michael Roffman (MR): I’d like to think of the Legends of the Summer tour as one of those classic ’90s action vehicles, where two Hollywood franchise figures would collide in an over-the-top situation that was more or less a lackluster story and a heavily produced entity. Think of Stallone and Snipes in Demolition Man, Gibson and Glover in Lethal Weapon, or Russell and Seagal in Executive Decision. Few bombed, several made Scrooge McDuck coin, and others sizzled to become cult classics. With Jay Z and Justin Timberlake, it’s more of a Lethal Weapon ordeal, not because one guy’s white and the other’s black, but because even though either could arguably hold their own in the same arena, their odd pairing actually creates a package that’s greater than their equals.
To me, that was always the problem with Watch the Throne: Kanye West tops all. And yes, that’s more posturing for the world’s biggest egomaniac, but unlike the sweaty days of the early aughts, Jigga actually needs Ye — it’s almost like he legitimizes him in a way. (Granted, West doesn’t appear anywhere on Magna Carta Holy Grail, but his presence always surrounds Jay. For example, the four to five tracks spun by the DJ prior to their set in Chicago tonight; not to mention the several Yeezus samples that worked their way in, too.) Anyways, my point is that Legends makes for a better pairing; it’s more of a symbiotic relationship, they’re cool together, they feed off one another… so, let’s just call it a night, okay? Oh, unless you wanted to add something?
Alex Young (AY): Watch the Throne was 90% Kanye, 10% Jay, especially when it came to its supporting tour. Sure, Jay helped push tickets, but he was there mostly to serve as the responsible big brother whose job was to keep Kanye in line and the sponsors happy. Everything else — the music, the stage setup, even the merchandise — was the result of Kanye’s genius.
Legends of the Summer definitely came off more cohesive, though at times it felt a little too perfect. Since reading The Hollywood Reporter‘s article suggesting Timberlake was essentially forced into recording The 20/20 Experience, and in 20 days no less, I’ve always had an icky feeling about their whole partnership. Maybe I’m just overly cynical, but looking back on Jay Z’s cameo on “Suit & Tie”, Timberlake’s presence on Magna Carta Holy Grail, and now their joint tour, it all seems like one big, well-thought out money grab, rather than the result of true artistic collaboration.
Of course, this sort of big-dollar synergy is nothing new in music — hell, just look at Jay Z’s tour with R. Kelly back in the day. But whereas Legends of the Summer proved to be a cohesive unit, at least Watch the Throne’s shelf life stretches beyond six months.
MR: No, I can see that. I was basically thinking early in the night, Well, here’s the biggest party for two mediocre albums. To date, I’ve listened to either record maybe six to seven times through — and these are some of the year’s most hyped albums! But really, by the end of the night, I was 100% sold on most of Timberlake’s newer material. “Suit & Tie” has become this mushy, bloated earworm that won’t stop growing with each passing month — and I wasn’t too impressed when it first surfaced back in Q1 — and tracks like “Mirrors” and “Pusher Love Girl” follow a similar path.
Onstage, they all coagulate together with older material like “Cry Me a River”, “LoveStoned”, or “Sexy Back”. Granted, they’re not as well received, but they don’t deflate the energy. I can’t say the same for Jay’s new material, save for maybe “Tom Ford”. And Christ does that hook for “Holy Grail”, specifically Timberlake’s role, overextend its welcome. It’s like an all-too-friendly European with a shitty green card that won’t leave you alone and they’re annoying and asking for your couch and they just drank the last bit of milk five minutes before you went for Lucky Cha — okay, I need to calm down. I just find it to be such a transparent single, as if he set out to emulate the success that he had with Keys, and others have had with Skylar Grey, by subbing in JT instead.
AY: Definitely. To me, the show was cohesive in the sense that the structure of the setlist never really made for an awkward transition. Whoever choreographed the setlist did a great job. The only thing I could have done without was the joint performances, which mostly came off as awkward. Sans a rather epic performance of “99 Problems”, especially considering the connotations of having Timberlake play the cop, the two seemed unsure of how to complement one another. Jay looked lost when playing hype man for JT. There’s only so many times one can say “oh yeah” or “that sounds beautiful” before it comes off as a broken record. On the flip side, JT did a great job as Jay’s sidekick, throwing down on piano and guitar like he was just another guy in the band.
But the medleys, oh, the medleys. The transition between Jackson 5 and “IZZO” was cringe-worthy, and as much as I love Timberlake, his register just isn’t suited to sing “New York New York” (which he did prior to Hov’s performance of “Empire State of Mind”). There were a lot of ambitious ideas thrown into the setlist as a way to cater to each musician’s skill set. But there’s no such thing as big-band hip-hop for a reason. It’s best reserved to hear in small doses.
With the exception of Jay Z’s newer material, I was a fan of each musician’s respective solo sets. Many of Jay Z’s songs — including “PSA”, “On to the Next One”, and “Run This Town” — feel written with the sole goal of sounding great in a stadium of 80,000 fans. I’m not sure there’s another rapper alive — Kanye included — who can play to a crowd that large like it’s no big deal. Meanwhile, for being only his 12th show since returning to music after a lengthy hiatus, JT sounded incredible. I agree with your assertion that the old and new material gelled without a hitch, all perfectly executed by JT’s backing band, the Tennessee Kids. “Mirrors” was a personal favorite for me, though “SexyBack”, “What Goes Around… Comes Around”, and “Pusher Love Girl” were also big highlights.
MR: Jay’s a headliner. He proved that at Bonnaroo, those eight nights opening Barclays spoke volumes, and this tour only further defines his reputation. There’s no going back for him; though, I don’t think there’s any other place for him to go at this point. Looking around last night, seeing every seat in Soldier Field taken, filled with a screaming fan, and all the beautiful starry phones during his encore performance of “Forever Young” (dedicated to Trayvon Martin), it was overwhelming how much he’s evolved the possibilities of hip-hop. We spoke about this strength ad-infinitum back in 2011 with The Throne, but this is another barrier broken, that hip-hop has a place in football stadiums and multi-billion dollar arenas, and not just on the PA between plays, but on a stage entertaining the masses. That’s Jay’s doing.
Timberlake certainly more than helped him sell out Soldier Field. You couldn’t hear anything but shrill screaming every time his name was muttered, whether when uttered by DJ Cassidy or if Jigga himself asked for some love. I gotta disagree with some of your critiques, though. I actually enjoyed his take on Sinatra and felt it added a crisp sleeve on New York’s modern anthem, while I also appreciated their collaborations together. It was odd to see them as such a tight unit early on, only to be broken up halfway through and somewhat pieced together by the end — though, really, only for “Suit & Tie” — which was more or less JT singing and Jigga waiting haphazardly for his chance to throw his bit in. Had they kept the mutual flow going throughout, with some pieces broken off to their own, I think then the collaborations wouldn’t have stuck out so much.
Timberlake was the star through and through, and having his Tennessee Kids made this the stadium show that The Throne couldn’t really be. Whereas that stage setup looked like something akin to WWE Raw, Legends’ looked like the sort of setup designed for a 21st Century Spectacle. Lush reds, engaging videos, and a Swiss army-like stage setup, complete with secret doors even, improved upon the rising monoliths of The Throne. I guess if we’re to take anything away from this it’s that these sort of things are only going to get bigger and ballsier aesthetically. Jay’s already created his own festival, he’s headlined the biggest events on this planet, and he’s worked with the most important people alive (even married one of them), so at this point we’re witnessing a peak that shows no subsiding, and people will flock — both talent and supporters.
As for Timberlake, several called him the Sinatra of our generation prior to The 20/20 Experience‘s release. While most critics feeling uninspired by the record would disagree with that assessment now, and as hyperbolic as it may be, it’s not exactly wrong, either. He’s the most multi-talented being on this planet, and whether you love his music or loathe it, there’s just no way anyone can watch him and think, This guy’s a crock of shit. He’s 100% talent, he’s an enigma, and he’s the sort of spectacle that keeps you in awe even hours into a performance. It’s not just about the dance moves, his song choices, or even that uncanny voice of his, but instead, that insistence on entertaining. He’s not just smiling because he loves his work; he’s smiling because you love it, too, and Christ, I’m pretty sure he would keep going if there wasn’t someone to stop him. That’s the sort of guy you have to champion.
After all, Jay does.
AY: My comments have mostly focused on the negatives of the show. I expect perfection from these two guys, and consequently I hold them to a higher pedestal than most other artists. For all intents and purposes, this was a flawlessly executed and incredibly enjoyable show. But when you have the greatest living rapper and the greatest living singer performing together on one stage, at least for me, there’s always going to be an expectation: OK, that was great, but what’s next?
I can’t help but keep relating this to Kanye West’s current “problem” with the paparazzi. Unfair or not, most would agree the “flashing lights” are part of being a celebrity, the sole repercussion of having riches beyond his/her wildest imagination. In the case of a musician, especially one who not only accepts but revels in the idea of being the greatest alive (ahem, Legends of the Summer), it’s not enough to just hit the stage and rap/sing through the hits, do a jig, put the diamonds in the sky, and then hop in the Maybach to the next stop in the tour.
As you’ve noted, Jay’s excellence comes from his ability to constantly reinvent himself, be it through star-studded collaborations or inane business ventures. Timberlake, meanwhile, has managed to become a successful actor in addition to the most desired pop act. And even if the whole 20/20 Experience was his way of appeasing his record label and corporate sponsors, he still manages to keep us guessing. Who knows what he’ll do next. There’s a very good chance we may never see him performing at Soldier Field again.
Jay and JT aren’t just virtuosos; they’re trailblazers. Here are two guys, one a former boy band member, cornrow-sporting heartthrob from Memphis, TN, the other a drug dealing gangster from Brooklyn’s Marcy Project, whose ability to evolve and reinvent themselves over the last two decades culminated Monday night in a massive stadium show. Who plays stadium shows anymore? Then again, who else has as much crossover appeal as these two artists? It’s no coincidence that the twentysomethings born and bred on N*SYNC were mouthing along to “99 Problems”, while fans of Reasonable Doubt were getting down to “SexyBack”. These two aren’t just Legends of the Summer — they’ve already etched out their legacy alongside Sinatra and Tupac. And guess what? Neither shows any signs of slowing down.
MR: Bottom line? This was a damn worthy summer blockbuster.
Holy Grail (Jay Z)
Rock Your Body (Timberlake)
I Want You Back (Jackson 5)
Izzo (H.O.V.A.) (Jay Z)
Excuse Me Miss (Jay Z)
On to the Next One (Jay Z)
Like I Love You (Timberlake)
My Love (Timberlake)
Big Pimpin’ (Jay Z)
Tunnel Vision (Timberlake)
Jay Z only:
Jigga What, Jigga Who
U Don’t Know
Public Service Announcement
Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)
Heart of the City
Pusher Love Girl
Until the End of Time
Cry Me a River
Take Back the Night
Dirt Off Your Shoulder (Jay Z)
Niggas in Paris (Jay Z)
Tom Ford (Jay Z)
New York New York / Empire State of Mind (Jay Z)
Run This Town (Jay Z)
Encore (Jay Z)
Suit & Tie (Timberlake)
Young Forever (Jay Z)