A few critics have pointed to the fact that Jay’s proclaimed financial stake in the Brooklyn Nets franchise is actually just a fraction of one percent. But these are likely the same people who also couldn’t tell you what the colors of the team’s jerseys are. (They’re black, duh.) When it comes to cultural ownership, Jay is the majority, and that’s all that really matters to the kids and fans (many possessors of increased earning potentials) buying the merch. The overwhelmingly positive response — in the streets, at least — to the Nets’ move to Brooklyn has much to do with the man holding the mic. At least half the crowd on Monday was rocking Nets gear, all subscribers to the idea that they could hold some piece of Brooklyn history made possible by the man they had just expended hard-earned paychecks to see.
The mythos of Jay-Z travels through American culture now not strictly via the hard transactional means of record sales and endorsement contracts, but as a fluid conception. Getting caught up in the spectacle that is this series of eight concerts has nothing to do with anything tangible (otherwise folks who aren’t from Brooklyn wouldn’t be feeling it the way they have been) and everything to do with the unbounded aspirations of “making it,” an attribute that perhaps no other American celebrity embodies better than Jay.
All of this, plus a live dose of the music that has so endeared itself to my psyche over the course of a decade and a half, should have been enough to lift my jaded American sentiments to some preeminent level, but that didn’t happen. Why was my hip-hop soul only half-fulfilled? Could it have been our seats in the rafters? (Our backs were literally against the wall in section 222, row 22.) Maybe, but the folks around us seemed fairly unaffected by the lofty perch, and there were moments during the show when I glanced to the floor below and felt a dizzying sense of grandness, a sensation unavailable to even those sitting in the box seats.
Could it have been a result of my professional life, the last five years of which have been spent working on the ground in fair and equitable housing in New York City, a cause to which Bruce Ratner and company have, unsurprisingly, barely paid lip service? That seems more likely. The Atlantic Yards project has become a fitting albatross for people with attuned eyes and ears to the rapid gentrification of Brooklyn.
In the end, though, I think my average level of enjoyment of the show boils down to something fairly rudimentary: I’d rather listen to Jay-Z through a nice pair of headphones. And, unless I’m seeing him in a cramped, sweaty basement venue with two bottles of Heineken in my hand and half of one spilled on my shirt, that will always be the case. Live hip-hop will always be better in such a setting; it’s a consequence of the music’s essence and I wouldn’t want it any other way. And really it’s not that I was expecting Monday night to be any different, which is why I’m not exactly disappointed that I was disappointed. Seeing Jay-Z perform one of his first shows in the arena that he helped to build was not about having a transcendent experience through the music, after all. It was about seeing how far he’s come. About the improbable-ness of it all.
Near the end of the encore set, a downright wistful Jay got his Tony Robbins on, emboldening everyone in attendance (as he had the previous three nights) to seek out their “special gifts” and use them to “change the world,” pretty lofty statements to make in one of the most scripted, commercially pre-packaged concerts of recent memory. Still, it was quite resonant. As my girlfriend and I sped up the West Side Highway back to our home in the city, I wasn’t upset that the most memorable event of the evening didn’t turn out to be the concert, but rather a taxi cab engorged in dancing orange flames across the street from where something memorable was supposed to have happened.
And if you were to ask a reflective Jay-Z himself about what it is in New York City that deserves special attention, he might tell you that it’s the little things growing in Brooklyn that matter. Small, seemingly inconsequential fires that start on dark city streets that eventually grow into towering infernos. Spectacles that leave us numb from the heat of it all.