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JAY-Z's Unmatched Legacy Was on Full Display at the Meadows Festival

The rap icon's 20-year catalog rocked the crowd at Citi Field.
Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

There is so much iconic footage of JAY-Z performing over his two-decade career that it's easy to think that you have experienced all there is. The classic backstage battle between him and DMX during their 1999 Hard Knock Life Tour pops up on the Twitter timeline every few months; Michael Jackson throwing up the Roc-A-Fella diamond in Summer Jam never gets old; any moments he's shared the stage with Beyonce are a win. But more than ever, 2017 has been about Jay showing us that there's still an abundance to be shared.


His thirteenth studio album 4:44 went the distance about infidelity, a need for property ownership, strengthening the family unit, and more on the path to establishing strong legacies in the black community. Jay dropped the album to cleanse himself of the shame he'd brought upon himself and his family over the years due to stagnant pride and a deep lack of consideration for those he hurt most. It launched the summer's music conversation but ended up being an exchange across platforms about dismantling or embracing capitalism. It also dug into the toxic connection between black women's high capacity for undeserved treatment and black men's abusive behavior being too-often forgiven as immaturity. Most people didn't anticipate a Jay this vulnerable putting himself on view but it was a necessary shift for an aging rapper whose boasts about purchasing art and vacationing in the past few years started to feel distinctly out-of-touch with his listeners.

Jay put much of 4:44's contents to the test this past weekend when he headlined New York City's second annual Meadows Festival's opening night at Citi Field. The festival was held on the stadium's parking lot and due to its sheer massiveness, most of Friday looked like a glorified tailgate. The crowd watching Migos earlier in the day likely had close to a thousand people but looked more like a small club. Run the Jewels' energy was pulsating throughout as well, but to an even smaller group. Excitement started to build around 7:30 when Blood Orange took the festival's Shea Stage. Night fell and sexy red lights flashed while he cooed into the mic, strumming his guitar. But not even a full ten seconds passed after frontman Dev Hynes thanked the crowd before people started to rush over to the main stage to post up for Jay. Without warning, the "Run This Town," instrumental went off and Jay, giving a cooly unfazed strut, looked out into a crowd that nearly packed the parking lot to its capacity.


He spent over 90 minutes on the stage, going through songs that are almost old enough to be of legal drinking age, like 1997's "Where I'm From," to career-defining cuts like "Hard Knock Life," to introductions to mainstream pop world like "Empire State of Mind." During a thunderous performance of 4:44's "Bam," he rapped the first verse and brought out Damian Marley who sent the crowd into a reasonable frenzy with a shortened performance of "Welcome to Jamrock." Blueprint-era cuts ("You Don't Know," "Heart of the City") hit especially hard, as they likely soundtracked a period of adolescence for the bulk of crowd goers.

The beauty of Jay's set that night was that it properly framed him as this generation's cross-cultural icon. A familiar scene at rap shows is the moment where time slows down and you look out into a crowd, seeing a combination of die-hards, half-entertained people, and those there just passing time. That could be due to a lack of interest in an artist's full catalog but also from the inability to connect on a personal level. That division doesn't exist during JAY-Z sets. Everybody knows and loves at least a handful of his songs; at this point of his career, he's made a song for just about every emotion there is. His rise has come with many transformations and the fans dialed into his narrative have likely transformed just as many times as he has. The intention behind "Fuck With Me You Know I Got It," can be felt just as deeply as those on "The Story of O.J" and that's where the power of his catalog lays.

When he finally got around to the latter, emotions were already running high from an hour of rapping along, dusting off shoulders, and collectively clapping to the hook of "Heart of the City." Jay took a pause to dedicate the song to black leaders, old and new, like the late Dick Gregory who passed last month and Colin Kaepernick, who's yet to be signed by an NFL team because of his protest against police brutality. He then let Nina Simone's reference track "Four Women" play until it faded out before pridefully commenting, "we nice as shit." It was the moment of the show that, though anticipated, was still incredibly rewarding. One of the most ailing pains of the black American experience comes from a lack of acknowledgement; a lack of acknowledgment from whites who know you deserve credit for your contributions to the country's well-being but still won't give it to you; a lack of acknowledgment from blacks who gain favor of whites and feel like they can no longer be worried with oppression. So much of that is the overarching message of "The Story of O.J.," black people realizing that progress can't be made until we acknowledge and embrace our oneness. Those shoutouts, while they can seem minor, are huge because Jay has not lost sight of that goal, even with his fairytale-like success.

Mr. Carter capped the night by giving another spirited tribute. This time, it was to Linkin Park's Chester Bennington. Before wrapping the set, Jay played the version of "Encore" that he and the group collaborated on. It was a proper ending to a performance that showed there is no titan as impactful as JAY-Z in American music. No other superstar in rap's short history has been able to reach across generational and cultural lines without compromise, let alone being able to dictate their own narrative on the grandest stages. Friday night was just another chapter in Jay's storied reign.

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