ow was Friday’s Jay-Z concert at Barclays Center? Um, kinda boring actually.
It’s all Jay and only Jay for the much-hyped series of 8 sold-out shows inaugurating the just-completed arena, the new home of the Nets basketball team and the largest and most influential development to come to Brooklyn in a generation. Die-hard rap fans—like the trio sitting in front of me who asked me for rolling papers—who attended the show might disagree, but I wasn’t thrilled to watch a minimalist rap soliloquy. Nor, do I suspect, were most of the people in the audience. The crowd was mixed in every way, black, white and brown in almost equal measure and from all over the city and income spectrum. There were men in doo-rags, men in blue button-downs; heavily-made up women in form-fitting dresses and women with loose hair in jeans and a t-shirt. Most of these groups weren’t looking for Jay-Z the Brooklyn brand ambassador. They were looking for Jay-Z the cross-over hip-hop superstar.
The show was a stripped down ode to Brooklyn, Jay-Z rapping alone on a blank stage for about two hours as if he were still just another local emcee. (Jay grew up in the Marcy Houses nearby in Bedford-Stuyvesant.) His band sat elevated behind him on a tilted black stage on whose surface was projected various images related to the history of New York’s most populous borough. There were no special guests, except during the encore when Big Daddy Kane appeared in an all-white suit. Kane is a legend, but he’s past his prime. And, no offense to him, but I was hoping for Beyoncé. Yes, Jay-Z rapped a cappella several times and blessed us with a new verse during that first show. But, that’s hardly as fun as a surprise appearance from Kanye West.
Instead of bringing the best of pop to his old stomping grounds, Jay-Z struck a somewhat somber, even preachy, note. The concert began with a history lesson: a slideshow of important dates in the life of the borough. Jay-Z kept telling the crowd how special this performance felt to him, told us to all consider ourselves from Brooklyn. He asked for ten seconds of silence in honor of Notorious B.I.G.: he even said please. The crowd, a weird mix of restless and subdued, didn’t really give him one. When Jay-Z walked off the stage (right after brandishing a Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers jersey) the audience applauded weakly for an encore.
Don’t yell at me for knowing little about rap. I am a proud casual fan of hip-hop. And I was hardly the only one in the audience. The concert was marketed as the christening of the Barclays Center, a historic event of significance to the whole city, something with mainstream appeal. Tickets were sold not just via the Jay-Z fan community, but via American Express Centurion. It was advertised on tourism websites. People came to see Jay, but also get a first peek at the 18,000-person arena.
So what gives? Why did the Jigga Man not give the people one of his “Jay-Z and Friends” shows? “This is my one chance to be selfish,” he told Rolling Stone, implying that the arena’s opening was so special he wanted to keep it to himself. But I think the real reason is less personal and more commercial. Promoting Brooklyn and giving an austere classic concert was good marketing for the controversial Barclays Center. Neighborhood opposition delayed the project at Atlantic Yards for years. By giving an ode to Brooklyn show, he may not have energized his audience, but it spawned an avalanche of news headlines linking the arena to its neighborhood, which is very good for business.
Fans of his music are no longer Jigga’s only constituency. Indeed they might not even be his most important constituency. Jay-Z is now beholden to the shareholders of the Barclays Center, a massive development. Now, many have poo-poohed his reported 1/5th of 1% interest in the arena, but that amount, which Jay-Z has questioned, is still worth $2 million. Plus it misses the point.
H.O.V.A. is playing in the big leagues. The stakes don’t get any higher, the competition never fiercer and the world no clubbier than the upper echelons of New York City real estate. The field is dominated by multi-generational Jewish families whose privately-held fortunes are so large, they make Jay-Z’s reported $450