Jay-Z looks like a naughty schoolboy in his buttoned-up white shirt, black pants and baseball cap.
He has crossed the Atlantic to deliver a relentless concert commercial for himself and remind Londoners how successful he is. The rapper dominates on two of three evenings of the Wireless festival -- last night with a two-hour, 40 minute set with Justin Timberlake, modestly billed as Legends of the Summer.
Wireless, and other summer festivals promoted by Live Nation Entertainment Inc., including Hard Rock Calling, used to take place in central London’s Hyde Park. Other venues were needed because of complaints about low volumes and time limits - - the plug was pulled on a duet between Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney last year.
East London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park certainly allows a clear and loud sound. Otherwise, the venue fails to impress. An expansive building site carpeted with Astroturf, it lacks shade and atmosphere. The crowds are unnervingly dense on the half-built roads which take the 60,000 capacity audience to the nearest subway station. Newly built blocks of apartments overlook the main stage.
Jay-Z and Timberlake duel over songs while Rihanna pops up for “Run This Town.” Unusually, she neglects to remove any of her surprisingly modest outfit of a knee-length skirt, white top and gray woolly hat.
Jay-Z mixes greatest hits with songs from his new album “Magna Carta… Holy Grail.” Favorites like “99 Problems” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” are lean and mean. Other tracks suffer from a sluggish live band. “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” already an oddity thanks to a sample from the musical “Annie,” gains a tuba solo.
The stripped beats of “Tom Ford” are live dynamite and the roll-call of modern artists in “Picasso Baby” is merely another shorthand signifier of Jay-Z’s wealth.
Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” and some of the weirder electronic funk provide a sensuous counterpoint to Jay-Z’s beats and bragging.
Unfortunately, the Memphis singer also tries to be Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson. Some middling retro moves hardly match the raw genius that was Amy Winehouse. His scrawny white-boy soul is even worse with Jay-Z, where he sounds like a sexually frustrated duck.
The Sunday afternoon set by Nas is punchy and raw. His rhythms and rhymes deliver vivid stories.
Iggy Azalea is gritty and sexy. The blonde Australian rapper mixes electro beats with tough-talking rhymes and razor-sharp wit. Her colorful hot pants and Twerking dance raise the temperature in the already sweltering tent in which she plays.
Emeli Sande is a great singer and songwriter. At Wireless, she seems a little safe. Her well-crafted, slightly earnest soul is the sort of music that might inspire you to accelerate up to the speed limit if it came on the radio.
Katy B effortlessly provides some excitement. The 24-year-old Londoner is dressed in sliver shorts and a white t-shirt for a set of infectious dance music. Her easy-going girl-next-door vocals are a breath of fresh air. The crowd, too big for the huge tent in which she is playing, dance with glee.
Ratings: Jay-Z, Timberlake, Sande ***. Nas, Azalea, Katy B ****.
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Good ** So-so * Poor (No star) Avoid
(Robert Heller is a music critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Richard Vines on food, Jorg von Uthmann on French culture, Elin McCoy on wine, Robert Heller on music and Craig Seligman on books.