1. IT WAS A JAY-Z SHOW. For an entire week, the closest thing America has to respectable pop-culture royalty, the self-proclaimed (and often critically affirmed) “best rapper alive” has been—and as of this writing, still is—ostensibly hosting himself for a week’s worth of concerts. It was in a brand new arena for a team he has an investment in—maybe you’ve heard of it?—the Brooklyn Nets, and here’s how it starts out. The lights go down, a screen comes up. On the screen, text is overlaid on images of Brooklyn with dates we’re meant to take as crucial to what we’re about to see, and what they represented: “BROOKLYN WAS INCORPORATED,” “BIG DADDY KANE WAS BORN,” that kind of thing. It ends with “2012: BARCLAYS CENTER OPENS,” or something to that extent. And then Jay-Z comes out, to “Where I’m From.”
He raps for two hours, and everyone in the house feels like they have a good seat, and they might. We’re on the riser in the middle of the arena, in an area sponsored by D’USSÉ—that’s Jay-Z’s cognac brand, pronounced “DEUCE-AY”—and not far from us are Big Sean (who dances along to his Cruel Summer song “Clique,” a verse of which Jay-Z raps), other industry types trying not to look too overjoyed at their great fortune for these incredible seats. They don’t have to try hard. One stands, free ‘gnac in hand, watching the Giants game on an iPad he brought with him. The entire thing is a stunningly luxe experience, in the midst of a stunningly luxe experience: Jay-Z in residency. There are no surprises, the setlist is the same from the nights before it, but the crowd doesn’t give a shit, and it is enraptured, and Jay-Z keeps instructing them that they’re part of something bigger than them, some great endeavor, and that this isn’t just about him, it’s about us. It’s about you, Brooklyn. He sounds like he’s campaigning, and he could be, and could be doing better than anyone else campaigning in America right now.
There were no special effects. There were no surprises. There was nothing of special note. It was a solid performance by a spectacular performer who has managed to make an art out of self-regard, and we love him for it. It was an utterly proficient concert, and nothing more, and maybe that’s how it was pitched.
The first and only other time this writer saw Jay-Z perform, it was during the Hard Knock Life tour, in 1998. He brought out countless guests, some of whom arrived via a Lamborghini rolling onstage. There were fireworks. The performer doesn’t need that now; going to see him in residency now is an agreement with him that he is the fireworks. This is a man with a triple-digit millions contract with the largest performing conglomerate in the nation. Fuck fireworks. He is, as he’s told you, the black Frank Sinatra. And it may be apt.
One hitch, though.
The first and only time this writer saw Frank Sinatra perform—in 1994, in a showroom at the old Desert Inn—he remembers the end: “New York, New York.” Sinatra had a giant, twinkling backdrop of the Manhattan skyline, which was lit up to blinding effect as he closed the set with his most ubiquitous song. Jay-Z ended with “Forever Young.” It was, we were told, about us. The concert was a good concert. But it also felt spare.