We Saw This: Jay-Z
“The fact that I own any percentage of this fucking arena is amazing.”
After Jay-Z said this, he asked us to put our middle fingers up. As I acquiesced and he launched into “99 Problems,” I couldn't help but feel like I was giving the middle finger to myself.
Last week, I wrote an article on this here website discussing how Shawn Corey Carter, better known as the rapper and businessman—business, man, sorry—Jay-Z owned slightly more of an NBA team than you or I own, but still doesn’t own very much of the Brooklyn Nets. I highly doubt Jay-Z read it, but there were a fair amount of similar pieces arguing essentially the same thing. Jay-Z knows when he is being criticized, and he does not like it. Last night at Barclays Center, Jay-Z decided to address the haters. His defense boiled down to, “Fuck you. I’m Jay-Z.”
And you know what? A fairer argument I have not encountered.
Perhaps the real triumph of Jay-Z is that he’s managed to be one of the few “consensus” musicians of our time. His albums sell millions, critics respect him, he’s married to Beyonce, owns a little bit of the Nets, and gets to hang out with Barack Obama. He is the ultimate case for the intersection of art and commerce being a good thing. He won. We lost. That’s really all there is to it.
No matter what anyone might think of him, Jay-Z puts on a fantabulous live show. The evening was his fourth of eight nights at the brand new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where Jay’s Nets will soon be playing. Trying to find my seat, I explored the Center a bit. It’s awesome as a modern arena, as it comes across as half a place where you’d go see sporting events and concerts, half mall. There’s a Rocawear store (Jay owns Rocawear, duh), a Nets store (also duh), myriad stations where you can buy $9 beers (duh x3), a place where you can gamble on stuff, and also a 40/40 Club, which is the small chain of clubs that Jay-Z owns there. Even if he doesn’t technically own too much of the Nets and Barclays Center, the place feels like it’s his.
The concerts, of course, helped. Last night, Jay laid the Brooklyn on thick from the moment the lights dimmed, with a projection of a timeline of the borough’s history flashing upon the screen. Everything was pretty normal—the founding of the village of Breuckelen, its incorporation with New York City, yadda yadda yadda—until we got to 1899 and the birth of Al Capone showed up. That was cool, I guess? It kind of helped establish Jay-Z, whose alleged history as a drug dealer has been discussed to death and back, in the lineage of famous outlaw Brooklynites, but it was still pretty random. No matter, because as soon as the DJ dropped Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Brooklyn Zoo” as Jay’s entrance music, the audience completely lost it and didn’t find whatever it was they’d actually lost until the show was over.
Ever reverent, Jay-Z wasted little time in paying tribute to Biggie, his friend and guy who basically made what Jay did possible. Probably the highlight of the night was watching Jay play hype man to a disembodied Biggie as the crowd rocked along, screaming every word to “Hypnotize” and “Juicy.” As Jay grabbed a shiny bottle of alcohol and poured it on the ground in memory of Big, I couldn’t help but think, “Wow. This show is professional as fuck.” Jay’s genius, essentially, is that he managed to truly embody the idea of the “corporate thug,” the guy who might be really scary, but also was totally willing to deploy shrewd acumen in order to transcend where he came from. And while much of his work does indeed embody the spirit of the heartless gangster, that wasn’t the Jay-Z on display at the Barclays Center. This Jay-Z was a role model. All of this Jay-Z’s songs were about how much he loved Brooklyn, even when they weren’t. This Jay-Z considered “Dead Presidents II” a “deep cut,” even though most of the people in the audience knew the words and it’s the one song from Reasonable Doubt that a casual Jay-Z fan would probably know.
So, yeah. My favorite Jay-Z song is “Big Pimpin’,” the single from Vol. 3… In My Lifetime where Jay-Z rapped about having sex with anything with a pulse and helped introduce me to UGK. As he went through his second alternate verse, projections of classical Greek statues flashing upon stage for some reason, I wondered, “How does Beyonce feel about this song?” Before I could formulate an answer, Jay had the seven-piece band stop playing so he could rap Pimp C’s part of the song a capella. If Beyonce was there, surely she was in favor of this. Anything that helps perpetuate the memory of Sweet Jones and his naked soul is undoubtedly a good thing.
The set concentrated primarily on his later work, with Jay visiting all of his hit singles and then jumping into album tracks from Blueprint, The Black Album and Blueprint 3, which were probably the albums that much of the audience was the most familiar with (although I did see a guy Shazam-ing “On To The Next One” on his phone, despite the song’s title also serving as the hook and concept of the track). He closed the first set by playing the song “Encore,” and then promising the audience if they made enough noise he would come back and actually do an encore. In a rap world where nobody ever really does encores, the fact that after five minutes, Jay actually came back out and performed an encore was sort of astounding. Said encore, which lasted about as long as the first set did, ended up cutting deeper into his catalog than expected, turning the Barclays Center into a time capsule of sorts, hearkening back to the late-nineties Tunnel era of New York hip-hop, where “club music” and “fight music” were more or less synonymous. Towards the set’s end, Jay took a jarring left out of memory lane, giving the audience a speech about how anyone could do anything they wanted to, as long as they worked hard enough and didn’t listen to people telling them they couldn’t do it, launching into “Young Forever,” a candidate for the most schlocky, positive song in his entire catalog. Interpolating Alphaville’s “Forever Young,” the song is terrible on record, but damn if it doesn’t pack a punch in an arena full of people.
The evening might have been most notable for what wasn’t included. Besides their recent single “Clique,” none of Jay-Z’s work with Kanye West was featured, even though Jay’s most recent album is Watch The Throne with Kanye. There were no special guests, despite Jay having brought Big Daddy Kane onstage a couple of days ago. He didn’t freestyle, which he’d done on earlier nights in the run. Besides “Clique,” the only other newish song he performed was his endless, Max B-referencing verse on Rick Ross’s “3 Kings.” Still, he claimed that last night’s show had been his favorite of the run, saying that the middle shows meant more to him than any of the others. The audience was clearly touched, again showing Jay’s greatest skill of all: being all things to all people.