They could’ve called it the Legends of Samsung Tour—of course they’re legends of the summer. But the real story is that Jay Z and Justin Timberlake are too big to fail. Both having reached the point where they could give a shit if anyone likes their respective new albums, it’s no surprise they were more imaginative when they felt they had something to prove. It’s somewhat of a surprise that even with its pre-sold, “history-making” Samsung app cosign, that Jay has a we’ll-get-around-to-it-eventually attitude about sending a team to rescue a hit single from Magna Carta…Holy Grail (although I guess with his history of rushing out nonentities like “Change Clothes” and “D.O.A. (Death of Autotune)” while “Empire State of Mind” trickled out massively, he’s learned the value of chilling). Meanwhile, Timberlake is almost politically trying to prove he can make music that actively avoids chart formula, with lots of seven-minute jams on the first volume of The 20/20 Experience and not a ton of immediate hooks (I still don’t know what the “chorus” of “Suit + Tie” is even though I’ve now heard it blasted at me in front of ten thousand people). But neither of these genius businessmen has ever risked enough to escape their own professionalism, a blessing as they leaned on their back catalogues for the grand majority of Saturday at Yankee Stadium.
I’d realized until I found my seat that I didn’t actually know who would be opening for the other, and grimly concluded that Timberlake would probably be the headliner, even at Jay’s home plate. Turns out they entered simultaneously to the overwrought strains of “Holy Grail”—and shared that space for the next three hours. It was fun to see them playing hypeman during the other’s songs, and occasionally it added a weird twist. If you think the former teen idol slashing at an electric guitar on the showstopping “99 Problems” is nuts, wait til you experience the white-privilege mindfuck of him playing “you were doing 55 in the 54” cop.
It bears repeating that this excellent show had a ceiling—it can only get so good with guys who would’ve bought the rights to these hits if they didn’t make them themselves (cue the Jumbotron zooming in on JT’s custom “JT” monogrammed earplugs). This was the real Watch the Throne; Kanye’s every bit as huge and important a musician as we journalist-historians act but we know not how they ball in Samsung World, where Kanye is not balling at all. Balling in Samsung World means swallowing the math that “Young Forever” as your concert closer is the best plan for all investors. In Samsung World, Kanye is Kim Kardashian and Justin Timberlake is @itslavishbitch.
But despite the corporate specter (and $12 commemorative popcorn buckets) in the air, music won out. These two culled from an enormous pile of pop mastery between them, with no visible limitations. It took about 20 musicians on the Target-red stage to recreate two decades of history, nearly all worth it, even the arena-cheese guitar solos. Occasionally it worked like Live Band Girl Talk: “Rock Your Body” and “I Just Wanna Love U” got lovingly mashed-up as a tribute to the Neptunes’ clavinet days, while Timberlake and the band teased a snatch of “I Want You Back” (Jackson 5’s, not N Sync’s) before it turned into “Izzo.”
They threw in Easter eggs for the hard core, like a few bars of “Hovi Baby” (never underestimate 20 musicians recreating a Just Blaze beat in real time), though the occasional oversight was perplexing: Jigga rapped the late Pimp C’s verse on “Big Pimpin’” with utter silence in the background but no one mentioned the recently passed Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland when JT sat down at the piano to croon the look on “Heart of the City.”
Jay’s NYC audience is a treasure of regionalism—they still go absolutely fucknuts for “U Don’t Know,” which I don’t even think was released as a single. Jay rewarded that song’s roar of applause by throwing up the night’s first Roc diamond. It’s hard to imagine the similar reaction to “Encore” in any other city either.
Timberlake’s oeuvre is patchier than his anointers want to admit—“Summer Love” and “What Comes Around” are nowhere near as good as “My Love” or “SexyBack” (which featured the night’s only guest, an exhausted-looking Timbaland). “Until the End of Time” is the closest thing he played to a real slow jam, and it was a low point. He’s better mean, whatever that says: “Cry Me a River” was launched with a lively “It ain’t all peaches and cream, bitch!” and a little bit of JT chanting “Bandz a Make Her Dance.” “Señorita”’s “it-feels-like-something’s-heatin’-up” coda still kills, even when followed by a Santana-metal guitar solo. And if he had to do a full eight minutes from 20/20, I’m glad it was “Pusher Love Girl.”
Both dudes wasted a lot of dynamite early on; it’s hard to imagine someone going crazy for a pre-recorded Rihanna on “Run This Town” when they were already showered with “Hard Knock Life,” “Big Pimpin’” etc. an hour ago. And both think way too highly of their newer stuff; “Tom Ford” is a relative highlight on the dull Magna Carta but does not stand up to fourth-quarter treatment after a barrage of hits. The only reason I can tell “Suit + Tie” was the encore was because it merited a costume change (GUESS). I’ll admit, it becomes an inch more goofily tolerable when performed with a champagne flute in hand. But I’m still not sure Justin knows why they call it a fatty.
Dan Weiss is your little pusher love girl. He's on Twitter - @kissoutthejams