Each time Shawn Carter rolls through to run your town, he arrives older, richer and more accomplished, his assets more diversified.
Yup, JAY-Z has always been smart — "Put me anywhere on God's green earth, I'll triple my worth," he rapped 16 years ago — but with the release of June's introspective 4:44 and the spirit he's bringing to his winter tour, he's never seemed so wise.
It only took 13 albums, but the rap deity gave us a more human side with his latest album, his best solo platter in a decade. He was raised by a closeted lesbian; his infidelity nearly destroyed his marriage; he regrets stabbing Lance "Un" Rivera. Turns out, there is a little dirt on his shoulder.
"You can't heal what you don't reveal," the 47-year-old wearing a snapback and box-fresh running shoes told the Air Canada Centre thousands.
More often than not, JAY-Z tours are a calculated collaboration with who's hot. The formula is to pick a partner — 50 Cent (2003), R. Kelly (2004), Mary J. Blige (2008), Ciara (2009), Eminem (2010), Kanye West (2011-12), Justin Timberlake (2013), Beyoncé (2014) — and double your audience. Cut the heavy lifting by half.
But singular focus of 4:44 — which features no rap guests and just one producer, the soul-mining No I.D. — was mirrored by its architect's live show, his first solo spin in four years and just his third in the last decade.
Performing 90 charismatic minutes of platinum hits and deep-cut favourites alone in the round, a live band heard but not seen orchestra-style, Jay kept distractions to a minimum, funnelling emphasis onto his music, his words, that impeccable flow.
Four gigantic two-pane video projection screens, folded like cracked hardcover books, raised away from a two-tiered stage as our hero opened with 4:44's intro track, "Kill Jay-Z." He quickly dove into his fathoms-deep catalogue — hitting "No Church in the Wild," "D'evils" and "Lucifer" — and managed to snatch highlights from 11 different albums over the course of a 30-song rip. His set was divided into three acts, each with its own sneaker-jacket-hoodie costume change and all maintaining a simple black-and-white aesthetic.
There were anthems on anthems: "Big Pimpin'," "99 Problems," "Public Service Announcement," "Niggas in Paris," "Izzo," "Where I'm From"….
"I got a million of these!" he teased at one point.
Jigga slid the best of 4:44 — "Moonlight," "Bam," "Family Feud" — between the more familiar slam-dunks, and seemed to be savouring all of it. More so than in past years, he came off appreciative, like he was having as much fun as the rest of us.
A couple of quieter moments — "4:44," the Beyoncé apology record, and "Smile," his letter to his mom — allowed Jay to grip the mic stand centre stage and catch a feeling, and the finale was unexpected.
"Mental health is a real thing," Jay said. "So check in on your loved ones. Make sure they're okay."
After a dedication to friend Chester Bennington, who took his own life in July, Shawn Carter led the arena through the Linkin Park mashup of "Numb/Encore."
Promising a next time, JAY-Z stepped off stage, slapping hands with fans on the floor as he walked out through the packed arena floor.
We wanted more.