Timberlake, alone in a spotlight wearing a fedora with left hand thrust into his pants pocket, did a decent if hardly transcendent Frank Sinatra imitation as he started to sing “New York, New York.” Some in the full house on Chicago’s lakefront started to boo, and Timberlake, ever attentive to any sign of disapproval or distress from his audience, paused. “You know I love you, Chicago, right?” he asked plaintively.
A few minutes later, Jay Z took over for “Empire State of Mind,” his New York City anthem, and he wasn’t apologizing for anything. Sporting a Brooklyn Nets cap, bling dangling from his neck and wrapping around each wrist, he barked out the verses, then commanded the fans during the piped-in Alicia Keys chorus: “Sing it to me.”
The contrast between the eager-to-please R&B entertainer and the imperious hip-hop godfather couldn’t have been more stark. Together they represent what pop music has become. After a long separation, R&B and rap have merged in the last decade. Singers provide hooks for hip-hop tracks, and rappers routinely make cameo appearances on R&B records. Timberlake has the year’s best-selling album so far with “20/20” and Jay Z recently debuted at No. 1 with his latest release, “Magna Carta … Holy Grail.”
Their 2 ½-hour set found them swapping moments on stage and frequently interacting with each other on 36 songs, backed by 14-piece band. The opening “Holy Grail” set the tone, with yearning and hurt in Timberlake’s voice, Jay Z defiant and ticked off. The subject is fame -- Timberlake cried that it will “take the clothes off my back” and yet “I love it so much,” while Jay Z cursed its demands. They came together to paraphrase Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”: “We're stupid and contagious/And we all just entertainers.”
The line was delivered at least partially tongue-in-cheek, because both want something more. Timberlake aspires to be an all-around artist, one who has thoroughly outgrown his past as a Mouseketeer and a member of boy-band multimillion-sellers N’Sync. He played guitar and keyboards competently, directed the band, and meshed counterpoint lines from his backing singers and horn section into the promise of a “Summer Love,” the nearly psychedelic reverie “LoveStoned” and the pleading “Cry Me a River.” Timberlake danced smoothly, if not as spectacularly as the performers he emulates (notably Michael Jackson and Prince) and frequently sang near the top of his range, a would-be soul crooner whose tone still comes off a bit thin and boyish. But he has wide-ranging musical ideas, bridging Latin rhythms, rock guitars, lush soul horns, and progressive, suite-like arrangements. He wants to please, and frequently does.
Jay Z, on the other hand, wants to rule with an iron fist. “As the best rapper alive, ask about me,” he flatly declared in “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” He staked his claim and acted the part. Whereas Timberlake was a singer in constant motion, Jay-Z glided stealthily in his gym shoes like a big cat stalking its prey. He varied his verbal attack: hard and deliberate on “U Don’t Know,” rapid fire in “Big Pimpin’,” horn-like cadences in “Hard Knock Life.” The tracks from the first half of his career through the “Black Album” classic “99 Problems” supported his claim of hip-hop supremacy. But he was coasting on newer material such as “Tom Ford,” which name-checks one of the fashion designers in the rap kingpin’s inner circle. It’s his latest way of suggesting that he has outgrown hip-hop and now become a musical franchise unto himself.
The contrasts made for good theater and a procession of crowd-pleasing hits. If Jay Z commanded the stage and the fans, Timberlake did everything short of selling popcorn to win them over. They needed each other, and the concert was better for it.
Justin Timberlake and Jay Z set list Monday at Soldier Field
1 Holy Grail
2 Rock Your Body
3 I Want You Back (Jackson 5)
4 Izzo (H.O.V.A.)
5 Excuse Me Miss
7 On to the Next One
8 Like I Love You
9 My Love
10 Big Pimpin'