After Monday night’s edition of Jay-Z’s christening series of shows at Brooklyn’s brand spanking new Barclays Center let out, my girlfriend and I hustled ourselves over to a strategic spot on Atlantic Avenue, about a block and a half west of the arena, hoping to nab an errant yellow cab that had inexplicably slipped by groups of fellow post-concert revelers. We did find a rare empty taxi, but one with its entire right side engulfed in flames, smoke rising into the clear Brooklyn night like puffs from a signal beacon marking the site of an event either historic or histrionic in nature. Maybe a little of both.
We stopped, stood and stared for a moment. And then, when our wits returned to us, fled the scene, running north along 4th Avenue back to Flatbush whence we came, crouching around the corner of the nearby Vitamin Shoppe, peering expectantly at the furnacing yellow cab as some brave soul (probably the cabbie) attacked the flames in earnest with a fire extinguisher. After it was all over, we continued northeast along Flatbush, eventually locating an off duty cabbie who we quickly convinced to drive us the 16 or so miles back into the City and to the comfort of our very sensibly-sized Uptown apartment.
Neither myself nor my girlfriend are originally from New York, and neither have we chosen to make Brooklyn our home. So, despite Shawn Carter’s best efforts, I did not particularly feel like I was an intrinsic part of his borough on Monday night, no matter how hard he or I wished it to be true. According to recent reviews about halfway into the series of eight Barclays shows, that’s exactly where Jay-Z’s focus has been, which seems natural of course.
Dispatches from last Friday night’s inaugural event described an MC relishing the moment, telling the 19,000 or so attendants that “Nothing feels like tonight” and “Tonight we’re all from Brooklyn,” phrases that he also bellowed on Monday to the delight of the thousands in my company. While it seemed like empty rhetoric to me — an increasingly grumpy fan of pop culture whose habit of scouring the internet for scrubbed information is beginning to feel like an emotional law of diminishing returns — I did manage to have the unlikely homey sense that all of us in the building were just sort of sitting in Jay’s cavernous living room, listening to him run through a decade and a half’s worth of hip-hop history. And for that I am unquestionably thankful.
For about two hours, Jay, with a DJ and full backing band, tracked through material old and new, reaching briefly back to 1996 (Reasonable Doubt’s “Dead Presidents”) and also pulling from the present (his guest verse on Cruel Summer’s “Clique”). The set was flush with bombastic choices (the blaring horns and immutable bass of Just Blaze’s “U Don’t Know”, the radio-unfriendly but regular crowd pleaser “Public Service Announcement”); R&B anthems (“Heart Of The City”, “Empire State Of Mind”); and club favorites (“Big Pimpin”, “On to the Next One”, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”).
Throughout, Jay practiced his standard understated cool, hand and arm motions fluidly animating his lyrics, a cocked head emphasizing a diss here, a light bounce enumerating the beat there. For the most part the dramatic lighting, smoke and visual effects did the heavy lifting (a nice touch was when lasers shot throughout the arena during “N**ga What, N**ga Who”, reminiscent of the vivid cheap thrills of the music video) and Jay reminded me of how difficult an act it is turning the relatively contained practice of reciting poetry over beats into an engaging live performance.
He stayed mostly dexterous on the mic, slipping up a couple of times which you can probably chalk up to general show fatigue. When his flow slips out of the pocket these days (live or recorded) it’s barely notable. There is simply nothing left to prove for a man who can sell out 152,000 seats in one fell swoop. As a friend of ours mentioned from her seat nearby, “It’s amazing that one man with just his voice and a microphone can draw this many people in.” I nodded in agreement, though it’s not exactly that simple these days for Jay-Z.
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