After two decades on top of the rap game, Hov hustled as hard as ever at the Smoothie King Center Thursday night.

jay-z photo

Jay-Z has always been the best at brushing off hate. His 4:44 tour reached the Smoothie King Center on Thursday, bringing with it a slew of disturbing questions for the rapper and his marketing team: Why are tickets selling on StubHub for $6? Why are there so many empty seats? Is Hov really past his prime? Jay remained unfazed.

Live Nation, which recently signed Jay-Z to an unprecedented ten-year, $200 million touring contract, jumped on these rumors quickly, explaining that the cheap tickets and unsold seats were part of their marketing strategy: sell tickets at their actual market value, beating out scalpers and getting “real fans” to the shows in one fell swoop. The 4:44 tour, claimed Omar Al-Joulani, Live Nation’s VP of touring, will be the biggest of Jay’s career.

It’s already his highest grossing solo tour, but solo is very much the operative word. 4:44 certainly won’t sell as many tickets as Jay's recent joint tours, Legends of the Summer (summer 2013) with Justin Timberlake and On the Run (summer 2014) with Beyoncé, who sold out the Superdome by herself last time she performed here. This time around, his only touring mate is opener Vic Mensa, a generally well-liked Roc Nation signee, who probably won’t account for many extra ticket sales.

Still, it’s impressive that Jay and Live Nation have already out-grossed the Magna Carta tour (fall/winter, 2013), less than two weeks into a two-month, 31-stop affair. Part of that probably has to do with the album he’s touring behind. Magna Carta Holy Grail had better initial sales than 4:44, but it was a critical disaster, panned by every critic who wasn’t afraid to go after the king. It deserved all the hate it got. It was scattered and uninspired, down to its ridiculous name. It felt like a plea for relevance from an over-the-hill middle-aged rapper losing his grasp on the scene.

4:44 is much more mature. Like Nas, who put out his best album in a decade (2012’s Life is Good) when he finally came to terms with being 40, Jay wears the elder statesman aesthetic well. In a way, he’s been rocking it for his entire career, smoking Cubans, quoting The Godfather and wearing a suit whenever possible, but it fits better at 47.

Hov is far removed from his days selling crack on the streets of Bed-Stuy, but he’s still the consummate hustler. He seems far less focused on the facts of his real life than he is on the legacy he projects and his obsession with creating his own narrative was on full display Thursday night.

All night long, Jay repeated the claims that the show had set a Smoothie King Center attendance record and that it had sold out, both of which were clearly false. About a quarter of the upper deck was curtained off Thursday, which wouldn’t have been the case if there had been interested buyers since the stage was set up for a 360 experience. On top of that, there were still of empty seats in every section.

The attendance fib was strange and unnecessary, but didn’t detract much from his actual show. With nostalgia acts, there’s often a moment a recognition, when you realize Oh! They wrote that song! That’s not the case with Jay, who’s worked hard at making his brand unmistakable. His seemingly endless barrage of hits was impressive, but not unexpected, and he could have doubled the length of his 90-minute set without reaching for a deep cut.

He started the night off with 4:44’s opening track, “Kill Jay-Z,” emerging from behind four massive, wedge-shaped screens that rose and fell throughout the night, depicting the many sides of Jay, from grainy home video footage of his family life to studio shots of his face bathed in blunt smoke. The stage, a sleek black octagon with four pits around the perimeter that housed the show’s personnel (a cameraman, three DJs, two drummers, a bassist and a guitarist), was equally versatile. Its center rose like a mountain and flattened out like a sacrificial stone multiple times during the set. There was even a hidden moving platform that allowed Jay to descend beneath the stage and rise up again like a hip-hop messiah.

Jay’s figurative platform shifted throughout the night as well. As he ran through megahits from at least 10 different projects, his audience interactions changed in tone. He began on a characteristically braggadocious note, flaunting his wealth, his fame, and his legacy on tracks like “Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit” and “Run This Town.” But as the night moved on, his message grew more serious. He indirectly addressed his infidelity and encouraged the audience to “embrace being uncomfortable” before rapping 4:44’s title track, an apology to Beyoncé and to all the women he’s wronged over the years.

After another hit-filled run featuring “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” “Public Service Announcement,” “99 Problems,” and “Big Pimpin’,” Jay took a turn towards the political. “The Story of O.J.” is easily the closest he’s ever come to “conscious rap,” and he prefaced it with a speech about police brutality, emphasizing that it should be a human issue, not a race issue. During the song, old school cartoon caricatures of black people played on the screens, sending a visible chill through the crowd and creating the most somber moment of the night. It was unclear where Hov would go next, but he ended up returning to his wheelhouse, restating his accomplishments and deftly spinning them into a message of black empowerment.

“Black people, dream as big as you want,” he beamed, after cutting off the beat to “Ni**as in Paris" to drive his message home. “Go into the boujiest hotel and eat the fanciest meal. It’s America, right?” He followed with yet another string of hits, including “Hard Knock Life” and “Empire State of Mind.”

For his final message, Hov went as broad as he could, shouting out anyone who’s ever been through hard times and reminding us to always smile. He then played “Smile,” an ode to his mother, Gloria Carter, who lived most of her life in the closet, only recently coming out as gay, even to her son. It’s a heartfelt song, and Ms. Carter’s presence on the track is touching, but the lyrics are somewhat pat, and the message preceding them on Thursday felt the same way.

Before closing the show with “Numb/Encore,” his iconic mashup with Linkin Park, Jay shouted out recently deceased Chester Bennington and asked the crowd to put their phone lights up in remembrance. It’s a played-out trick, but like the attendance propaganda and the mild pandering, he sold it like the shrewd businessman he is. Jay-Z’s music may not be as edgy or as interesting as it used to be, but his hustle is as strong as ever.