What can a king do with his power? He can flex it, run from it, consolidate it, abuse it.
Jay Z, the king of hip-hop, cycled through each of those options Monday night at Staples Center, where he brought his Magna Carter World Tour to a full house of loyal subjects.
It's the swaggering road show behind "Magna Carta Holy Grail," the studio album Jay Z released in July, initially through a smartphone app that guaranteed him sales of 1 million records before physical copies were even in stores. And the tour reached Los Angeles just days after the 44-year-old rapper (born Shawn Carter) was nominated for nine Grammy Awards, more than anyone else this year.
"World can't hold me, too much ambition," he insisted over a crunching rock groove from his four-piece band (which included producer Timbaland). "Always knew it'd be like this when I was in the kitchen."
A dependable source of charisma, Jay Z didn't rely on a dazzling stage production to demonstrate his standing. Dressed in his signature black, he moved leisurely across a wide stage flanked by two large video screens -- downright Spartan compared to Kanye West's Broadway-grade Yeezus Tour or Drake's current show, which involves a catwalk suspended high above the audience.
But Jay Z has hit songs stretching back to the mid-'90s, and Monday he strung together more than two dozen of them -- including "99 Problems," "Run This Town," "On to the Next One" and "Big Pimpin'" -- with the knowledge that they've soundtracked lives.
"I got a million of these," he said before launching into " '03 Bonnie and Clyde," originally a duet with his superstar wife, Beyoncé.
A decade after that song extended his reach into pop, Jay Z -- now a father and a businessman with corporate interests -- has grown only further removed from the street life that once filled his music. And that's not always been a creative boon: With tracks about traveling to Europe to buy art and clothes, "Magna Carta Holy Grail" sometimes mistakes complacency for confidence.
At Staples, "Picasso Baby" and "Tom Ford" felt drained of emotion, an exercise of Jay Z's power from which he appeared to be taking no real pleasure.
And when he did the song known in its edited form as "Paris," from his and West's "Watch the Throne" album, he let the audience deliver several off-color lines, seemingly conscious of the need to protect his boardroom status.
He got more tension -- and more excitement -- out of "Holy Grail," airing his misgivings about fame and its effect on his family, and an unprintable titled track from the new album that served as a preemptive strike against young comers who might mistake his age for weakness.
Yet Jay Z was best Monday during a lordly bit near the end of the show in which he talked directly to the audience while his band chewed over a slow-jam vamp on his song "Encore."
He'd more or less pilfered the set piece directly from Drake, who does the same thing from that elevated catwalk. But where Drake puts across a politician's vibe, as though he were building voter support for some hard-sell initiative, Jay Z came on like the pope on his balcony, finally enjoying the stature that had seemed to bore him earlier. (It probably goes without saying that he seemed completely unworried about borrowing from another rapper.)
"Is that sable?" he asked one woman wearing a furry hat, casually satisfying his own curiosity. "Mink?"
His command established, Jay Z then took a victory lap, hauling out the exuberant, arena-geared choruses of "Empire State of Mind," "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" and "Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)," for which Chris Martin of Coldplay appeared onstage to sing the Bobby "Blue" Bland hook.
But he also showed what can happen when power goes to one's head.
Monday's concert closed with a mawkish self-help homily and "Young Forever," Jay Z's dreadful song about how "life is for living, not living uptight." It was a warning in the form of a royal valediction.