Providing the yin to the other’s yang, Jay Z and Justin Timberlake dropped a potent one-two punch onto Ford Field Tuesday night.
With Timberlake laying down smooth dance moves alongside Jay Z’s seasoned laid-back swagger, the superstar duo lived up to one of the summer’s premier concert billings for a roaring, engaged audience of more than 40,000.
In a show that was intricately orchestrated but still loose enough to give the whole thing a freewheeling mood, the nearly 2½-hour set was a marathon party, a rat-a-tat-tat of hits and high energy.
Detroit was one of just a dozen cities to luck out on one the duo’s Legends of the Summer tour stops, and the football stadium was bristling with buzz well before the two appeared onstage at about 9:20 p.m. The last time we’d seen each of these guys in a stadium-sized setting here, it was across the street at Comerica Park: Timberlake in 2001 with ’N Sync, and Jay Z in 2010 when he co-headlined with Eminem.
They opened Tuesday with their new collaboration “Holy Grail,” appearing astride risers at opposite ends of the mammoth, lavish stage before making their way to the middle for the first of many side-by-side musical moments.
From there it was on through a rapid-fire selection of tunes to rev up the party: Timberlake’s “Rock Your Body,” a sprightly “I Want You Back” in its natural pairing with Jay Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” Timberlake’s “Senorita,” Jay’s “On to the Next One.”
It was all gloriously bombastic, the kind of night when having two drummers (and a percussionist), three keyboardists and a pair of video screens big enough to beam images to Canada all made perfect sense. And anyway, it wasn’t all just for show: The 14-piece band — complete with a feisty horn section and topped with four stylish backup singers — was tight, dense and nimble enough to serve both performers well.
Sure, this tour is a gimmick of sorts, teaming up two of the era’s biggest stars — and periodic studio collaborators — for a high-powered festival of hip-hop, R&B and pop. But Tuesday night, it was a gimmick that really worked: Jay Z and JT looked liked they’d been doing this together for years, sporting an affable chemistry as they played to one another and handed off the mic between comings and goings.
They’d arrived at Ford Field in dichotomous career spots: Jay Z the veteran rap kingpin on cruise control, Timberlake the comeback kid who seems to have remembered that he really digs this whole music thing. The latter was the harder working performer of the night, jumping from keyboard to piano to acoustic guitar when he wasn’t serving up his Michael Jackson-inspired maneuvers up front (and calling out to Detroit “Rock City” all night).
That certainly doesn’t mean Jay Z was second fiddle, and it was his litany of hits (“99 Problems,” “Hard Knock Life,” the stacatto-rapped “Jigga What, Jigga Who” and “Big Pimpin’”) that consistently drove the show. It’s old news at this point that the 43-year-old emcee has singlehandedly elevated the standards for live hip-hop in a big-stage production. But it’s still impressive to see it in action, and he prowled the Ford Field stage Tuesday night a larger-than-life showman, fully occupying his moment.
The set never dwelled too long in one musical place. The night’s most straightforward stretch came with Timberlake’s relatively lengthy midshow run of lush-grooved pop (“Summer Love,” “What Goes Around … Comes Around”), with “Cry Me a River” intensifying into a twin-guitar climax.
The only real awkward moment came with Timberlake’s rickety cover of “New York New York,” buttressing Jay’s “Empire State of Mind.” It was a lone clunker in a potent homestretch as the show began to hit its climatic run.
By the time they got to the encore, clad in tux jackets and hoisting glasses of champagne as they ran through a solid “Suit & Tie” and even better “Young Forever,” it was clear they’d accomplished something worth toasting themselves for. And don’t be suprised if 2013 isn’t the last time you see them doing it.