Published Jul 18, 2013As the lights dimmed and the Rogers Centre lit up with flashes of about 50,000 cameras and phones, the duo walked onstage to a grandiose orchestral swell that led into the plaintive piano chords of "Holy Grail." Spoke Jay Z with his characteristic mafioso swagger: "I go by the name of Jay Z. My man here goes by the name of Justin Timberlake. Are you ready to party?"
The audience most definitely were. They screamed in delight as Jay's "I Just Wanna Love You (Give It to Me)" was mashed up with Timberlake's "Rock Your Body," and again when a brief cover of the Jackson Five's "I Want You Back" turned clumsily into "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)." The medleys, of which there would be plenty, were novel at first, but they quickly wore thin; tracks that should have received full-track treatment felt rushed, while the transitions often felt clunky and ill-conceived.
Problems with set list construction persisted throughout the show: Timberlake's epic "Lovestoned/I Think She Knows," of which fully half was cut in order to hurry to the next song, built up momentum by getting the entire floor area dancing only to be followed by a full-length iteration of the dragging "Until the End of Time"; Jay's "Song Cry" led awkwardly into Timberlake's "Cry Me A River," perhaps only because they share a title word. And where, may I ask, were The 20/20 Experience's most beguiling tracks, "Strawberry Bubblegum" and "Blue Ocean Floor"?
The biggest problem plaguing the show, however, was sound. The Rogers Centre is an enormous, cavernous echo chamber, with seating so far away from the stage that by the time the sound travels there, all but the most sparsely arranged songs are obliterated into echoing fragments. Timberlake's "Señorita" was absolutely robbed of its spacious production and rhythmic snap; Jay's Blueprint centrepiece "Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)," aided by Justin Timberlake on the chorus, was reduced to sonic mush, as was "Big Pimpin'."
The best songs of the night were, thus, the simplest. Timberlake's minimal "My Love" was sparse enough that an epic guitar solo that ended the song created surprising contrast; Jay's "U Don't Know" was a stomping triumph; "99 Problems," perhaps the highlight of the entire night, was spacious enough that both the crashing drums and crunching guitar — a bar or two of which was swapped for the riff from Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" — were hard-hitting.
Even with the sound issues, a few songs with more maximalist arrangements still managed to hit home, largely on the strength of their general quality. Jay's "Empire State of Mind" will never sound out of place in an arena, nor will Timberlake's stunning "Mirrors." It was moments like these that transcended the sheer distance between fans and the stage, which often made watching the show feel more like watching a documentary of one that already happened: impressive, maybe, but difficult to really connect with.
Of the two, Timberlake is the better performer, but he succumbs to more concert clichés, too, so while Jay never got quite the same reaction when he asked for crowd participation, he also wasn't responsible for turning the slinky "Suit & Tie" into "Hey! Ho!" call-and-response. He also wisely avoided referring to the crowd and himself and "you and me," which Timberlake laughably resorted to a handful of times.
Still, it was Timberlake's show. Jay's trilogy of "99 Problems," "Public Service Announcement" and "Hard Knock Life" was the best song run of the night, but it was Timberlake's ability to control the crowd, and his animation onstage, that made him the clear crowd favourite, and his performances of songs like "Cry Me a River" and "What Goes Around... Comes Around" were head and shoulders above most of Jay's.
Both Timberlake and Jay seemed to be having a blast, playing with the crowd and putting effort and enthusiasm into performances of both their newer material ("Tunnel Vision" and "Let the Groove Get In" for the former, "Tom Ford," during which Jay beamed at the crowd's response, for the latter) and old ("Like I Love You" for Timberlake; "Jigga What, Jigga Who" and "Encore" for Jay Z).
However, both performers, and by extension the fans, were ultimately short-changed here. It was clear as soon as Timberlake and Jay had each gotten solo stage time that they were better when left to play their own songs, gimmick-free, and it was the double-header bill that made the vast Rogers Centre the only viable venue. Fans would fill out arenas half this size for solo shows by either of these artists, which would give both Timberlake and Jay Z room to stretch out and do their catalogues, beyond just the hits, justice. Hopefully, by their next tours, two of the smartest artists in pop music will have figured that out.