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The new Jay-Z, a man of the world

The rapper ends a brief `retirement' with plans for global domination. But already there are bumps along the road.

October 23, 2006|Hua S. Hsu | Special to The Times

TAIPEI — The struggle for global pop supremacy is fought on many fronts. On Saturday, rapper Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter took the Taipei Arena stage here in Taiwan, halfheartedly trying to forge a sense of solidarity with some of his fans overseas.

"We relate to struggle -- we relate to y'all," he declared, only to be met with confused indifference. It was a constant motif: Throughout Jay's 90-minute set, the star and his island fans seemed unable to surmount certain cultural barriers. Frequently he would call for responses that never came, and then, in true showman style, pretend to find the crowd's tepid cheers awe-inspiring. Such are the growing pains that come with taking one's brand international.

Jay recently embarked on a seven-week world tour through Africa, Asia and Europe. This in itself was no great feat: Despite the presence of exotic-sounding venues such as "Karl Marx Cinema, Angola" dotting his itinerary, he is not the first entertainer to attempt a thorough blanketing of world markets. Nor was it entirely surprising that the tour brought an end to his self-imposed "retirement," which had struck many in the industry as a slow-nesting publicity ploy.

The remarkable aspect was that portions of the tour have been supported by the United Nations. Owing to a long-hinted-about interest in social justice, Jay used his African dates to film a documentary about the need for clean water in underdeveloped nations. When he and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan made the announcement in August, it had the markings of a humanitarian deed. And his arrival elsewhere felt proportionally monumental, as he became the first rapper to play such august venues as London's Royal Albert Hall. Here was a by-his-bootstraps African American hero walking the globe, spreading something approximating international power-to-the-people goodwill -- or so it seemed.

In Taipei, Jay's arrival was heralded as a chance for Taiwan to participate in a top American performer's comeback. It also was an occasion for a charming interface of the global and the local: At the news conference announcing the concert, a popular television hostess dressed up like Jay's girlfriend, Beyonce, and mimed her signature moves; another presented Jay with a glass chicken -- a reference to his Chinese zodiac sign. A production company planted a rumor that Taiwan's most famous athlete, New York Yankees pitcher Chien-Ming Wang, would appear. It is challenging enough translating the term "hip-hop" into Chinese; it is almost impossible to project its complex meanings and lyrical codes abroad. The scene at Taipei Arena suggested that locals had absorbed the aspects that travel the most easily: the fashion and enthusiasm for weed, mostly. While the crowd throbbed during Jay's biggest international hits -- "Big Pimpin'," Panjabi MC's "Beware of the Boys" -- the show lacked energy. For much of the night, Jay and his profoundly mediocre sidekick Memphis Bleek seemed satisfied going through the motions and offering generic praise for their Taiwanese fans. Although the show never approached its history-in-the-making billing, it did make for a fascinating snapshot of a career in transition. Jay-Z has achieved iconic status stateside, yet internationally he probably is more famous as Beyonce's boyfriend.

The synchronization of Jay's world tour with his much-hyped comeback might change this visibility gap. To those who have watched him closely, the savvy fashion of his return should come as no surprise. His retirement, a break in name only, freed him to explore projects that would have seemed odd had they been part of his formal, hustler-to-rapper-to-executive career arc. Instead, performing with Phish, collaborating with Linkin Park or befriending Fall Out Boy could be done under the cover of novelty, the curious acts of a retiree unconcerned with his credibility among his core fans.

Through a cunning and controversial power play in 2004, he became president and chief executive of the storied hip-hop label Def Jam. Though he initially insulated himself from criticism by supporting established artists and onetime peers, his approval rating has steadily fallen. Longtime Def Jam rappers DMX and LL Cool J accused him of ignoring their needs, while sales for the latest albums from the Roots and Method Man suffered after they were inexplicably released on the same date. Instead, Jay has focused on a stable of younger artists, including singers Rihanna and Ne-Yo, oft-imitated Atlanta rapper Young Jeezy and the pixie-like British rapper Lady Sovereign.

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