Jay-Z + Carnegie Hall
At the far left tip of the first balcony at Carnegie Hall on Monday were two men losing their minds: expensive seats, beautiful suits, slicked-back hair, arms pumping enthusiastically to every song performed by the night’s headliner, Jay-Z.
Fans of disposable income — earning it, spending it, rapping about it, listening to someone rap about it — had much to cheer during this concert, the highest-profile hip-hop show ever at Carnegie Hall.
And there was also the matter of the income disposal, or in this case, donation: this concert was the first of a pair (the second was scheduled for Tuesday night) benefiting the United Way of New York City and the Shawn Carter Scholarship Foundation, the charity founded by Jay-Z (whose real name is Shawn Corey Carter)and whose president and chief executive is his mother, Gloria Carter. Most tickets cost several hundred dollars; on the resale market some were listed for more than $1,000.
It all made for a fascinating cross section of wealth in the city: tweed suits and strapless dresses, T-shirts and tuxedos, Louboutins and at least one Giants jersey. And of course Jay-Z, who began the night in a white Tom Ford dinner jacket, a diamond Cartier pin on the lapel. “Check out my tux, yo/Peep the way I wear it,” he rapped on “Public Service Announcement,” modifying the line that in the original referred to his hat.
“All those lines that divide us,” he told the crowd early in the night, “we gonna step on them.”
Dark glasses were hiding what were probably excited eyes. Because for all of Jay-Z’s steely cool and expert control, this was something new. Filling Madison Square Garden is old hat by now, but ascending to one of New York’s most hallowed stages without soft-pedaling his act is another thing altogether.
Backed by an orchestra conducted by Jeri Lynne Johnson (of the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra), and also the Illadelphonics, an ensemble featuring Questlove of the Roots and the singer Bilal among others, Jay-Z proved that the Carnegie stage is agnostic.
That meant songs about drug dealing, about growing up impoverished, about questionable behavior toward women, about triumphing over adversity through hustle and capitalism. Mostly he stuck to mid- and late-career hits, the songs that made him something more than just the most important rapper in New York, from the sugary “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” to the booming “U Don’t Know” and “Run This Town” to the aggressive “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” and “99 Problems.”
His most contemplative moment came on “Most Kingz,” which he began a cappella. “See Jesus, see Judas/See Caesar, see Brutus/See success is like suicide,” he rapped, adding, “Every step you take they remind you, you ghetto.”
More than any of his peers Jay-Z understands the cultural politics of infiltration, and as he gets older, he has made it more the subject of his music. Taking over an institution like this he didn’t take lightly. And he brought fellow crashers. The only guests, whether by design or not, were fellow New Yorkers: Alicia Keys, who was thunderous on “Empire State of Mind,” which came after the orchestra and band played a medley of New York songs, including Gil Scott-Heron’s chilling “New York Is Killing Me.”
That was followed by “N.Y. State of Mind,” for which Jay-Z brought out his onetime nemesis, Nas, who was catching his breath on both that song and “If I Ruled the World,” on which Ms. Keys sang the Lauryn Hill part. The fellow Brooklynite the Notorious B.I.G. also got a nod, with Jay-Z rapping a bit of “Gettin’ Money (the Get Money Remix).”
One more New Yorker received a tribute during this show: Blue Ivy Carter, the first child of Jay-Z and his wife, Beyoncé, who was born at Lenox Hill Hospital last month. Near the end of the night, Jay-Z performed “Glory,” which he recorded as a tribute just after her birth. It was a knockout, sounding like a Sinatra standard, and a worthy addition to the gentle, adult-oriented part of his catalog.
“I didn’t think I was gonna make it through that one,” he said afterward. “That one was tough,” especially since it immediately followed “Song Cry,” one of the most affecting songs he’s ever recorded.
Jay-Z made sure to acknowledge friends in attendance: “I’d like to give a special shout-out to Liza Minnelli in the house tonight.” And his concessions to the room were small — say, cutting “whitey” from the Pimp C verse on “Big Pimpin’.”
He was also cognizant that the audience might have included some people who didn’t have album-cut familiarity, telling his D.J., Young Guru, who dropped the buoyant beat for “So Ghetto” during the encore, “That might be a little too deep.”
By this point Jay-Z had made his way to the balcony, settling in next to the two men who’d been vibrating at a high frequency throughout the show. He’d changed into a black T-shirt and gold chain, and he ran through snippets of a few more songs, including some from his 1996 debut album, “Reasonable Doubt,” the first time he’d touched it all night.
He was giddy and gregarious, as if barely believing the scene. He rapped most of the encore, one quick hit after the next, with his hand on the shoulder of one of the two balcony revelers. Whatever that guy paid, it wasn’t enough.
By Jon Caramanica, Courtesy of the New York Times