If “Drink when you hear the word ‘Brooklyn’ ” were a game at the inauguration of the brand-new Barclays Center sports arena last night, it might easily have turned fatal by the 30-minute mark.
Thankfully (or not) the venue ran out of alcohol roughly two-thirds of the way through the evening, one of several small kinks in a generally on-point if occasionally underwhelming opening.
That Jay-Z is, to paraphrase his dearly departed friend, not only a Barclays client but the player president, is not news to New Yorkers. The rapper-turned-mogul has a minority ownership stake in the Center and its team, the Brooklyn Nets, and his Hova-ness is an integral part of both its DNA and its marketing plan.
The significance of that stake is clearly not lost on the man himself; multiple times, he stopped his set to acknowledge it in ways both playfully braggy (“This is the house that Hova built. Welcome to my house!”) and nakedly emotional (“Do you mind if I take my time? I’m feeling a little bit overwhelmed by the moment.”) At several points, he stopped to note that this performance meant more to him than any in a long, glittery line of career highlights: More than the Grammys, more than Glastonbury, more than Coachella.
The guy who grew up only minutes away in the Marcy public housing projects started the show – his first of an eight-night run – fittingly, with a wide-screen video tribute to the borough that made him: flashing images of alumni both famous and infamous, from Jackie Robinson and Al Capone to the Beastie Boys and ODB.
Was there any other way to begin but with a one-two knockout of “Where I’m From” and “Brooklyn Go Hard”? The roar of the 18,000-strong crowd as he emerged in a black bubble vest, chains, and Knicks (just kidding!) jersey and hat said no. But the room practically turned itself inside out for the Biggie tribute that came next (“Kick in the Door,” “Juicy”), featuring the late king-sized icon as ghostly black-and-white duet partner on the screens above. It was harder, however, for them to comply when he asked for an arena-wide minute of silence in honor of his fallen friend.
What followed over the next two hours was a canny mix of deep cuts (“Marcyville,” “Dead Presidents”) and writ-large crowd pleasers (“99 Problems,” “Big Pimpin’,” “Hard Knock Life”). Though Jay had told reporters earlier in the week that there would be no special guests, the crowd did seem to deflate a little when stars like Rihanna (on “Run This Town”) or Alicia Keys (a thunderous “Empire State of Mind”) failed to materialize.
He did break his word though – the sole cameo came from an unexpected icon: Big Daddy Kane. Fully decked out in tee-to-toes white,the early-hip-hop hero delivered classics ”Ain’t No Half Steppin’,” “Set It off” and “Warm It Up Kane” – the last bit with an awesomely loose three-man dance that ended in a double jump-up split(!). Not bad for a man who turned 45 two weeks ago.
There were more than a few genuinely epic moments throughout the night – “On to the Next One” and “Give It to Me” in particular were electric – and Jay’s emotional asides felt charmingly real; at one point near the end, he exhorted the audience to find their own “genius-level talent,” insisting that every one in the room had it in the them: ”I ain’t no mother—-in’ different from anybody here tonight,” he exclaimed. “and I’m standing on this stage.”
However he puts his pants on, he is different, of course – a multimillionaire, a mogul, and a man who changed the game in almost uncountable ways. Maybe that’s why the night seemed to fall short of his best at times. Even for the most outsized talent, it’s tough to sustain an almost entirely solo 100-plus-minutes performance with only an unadorned stage and a knee-deep catalog of hits.
Frankly, a more visual show or a larger guest roster felt in order for a night that seemed like the culmination of a career. And Jay was at his strongest when he went off-script and found moments of levity, like he did when he offered a fan the jersey in his back pocket (“Because you were the first one to ask … We gotta get this guy some security, don’t we?”) before playfully reneging when the crowd got too rowdy.
But as the last notes of closer “Young Forever” faded and the crowd streamed out into the night, that small stuff didn’t seem to matter too much. What mattered was these 18,000 people feeling pretty sure that they had just spent two hours with the biggest living rapper, in the best borough, in the greatest city in the world.
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