Jay Z, Justin Timberlake bring chemistry, hit formula to sold-out Ford Field

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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.

Related: Jay Z, Justin Timberlake rock Ford Field, fans buzz on social media

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.

 

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Jay-Z/Justin Timberlake at Wireless

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Has London ever had a more dystopian venue than the Olympic Park? Compared to Wireless’s old home of Hyde Park this partially astroturfed gravel car park, exposed to an unforgiving sun, is like Coachella designed by an angry JG Ballard. Still, a formidable three-day lineup drawn from urban music‘s top table is worth risking heatstroke for. Having headlined a night each, Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake close the weekend together under the typically self-effacing name of Legends of the Summer.

Jay-Z’s presence is felt before he steps on stage. His shows have helped to professionalise live hip-hop after years of cruddy sound, intrusive hypemen and constant interruptions. Backed by a full band, Nas – in the late-afternoon slot – rips through 50 minutes of hard-nosed New York hip-hop with pugnacious urgency that makes A Tribe Called Quest’s traditional MC/DJ setup seem archaic, albeit fun. Legends of the Summer is on another plain entirely. Dressed in fire-engine red and arrayed across two levels, a vast and gifted band helps urban music’s two most enduringly dominant male stars steam through almost 40 hits in two and a half hours. When Jay-Z boasts, during a particularly dizzying sequence, “We got a million of these,” it feels like only a mild exaggeration.

Any show this long risks sagging in the middle, and the breakneck momentum ebbs when Jay-Z leaves Timberlake to dwell on his more long-winded new material. But otherwise the energy and showmanship is staggering. They deftly pass the baton back and forth and even merge songs: a hybrid of two Neptunes productions, Rock Your Body and I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me), illustrates how much their parallel careers have overlapped. Together, their joint charisma could power a starship. During Jay-Z’s songs, Timberlake is a tireless, versatile sideman, playing keyboards and singing hooks. On 99 Problems he not only plays guitar, inserting the riff from Walk This Way, but raps the role of a racist cop. The two men’s warm grins and conspiratorial glances reveal their genuine rapport and mutual delight in this alliance.

The faultless final stretch includes Run This Town, with surprise guest Rihanna, and a fierce techno-funk Sexy Back. But the crowning moment comes when Timberlake bookends a euphoric Empire State of Mind with verses from Sinatra’s New York, New York, because the spiritual precedent for this show isn’t Jay-Z’s previous collaborations, most recently with Kanye West, but the supremely confident showbiz chemistry of the Rat Pack at its height. Long may their imperial bromance continue.