Live: Jay-Z Takes Over Carnegie Hall


Carnegie Hall
Monday, February 6

Better than: Slacking off.

The age-old question about how one might get to Carnegie Hall rattled in my brain as I headed uptown last night, en route to Jay-Z’s first of two performances at the hallowed Midtown space. “Practice” is the cheeky answer that people give, but as Jay showed last night with his benefit for the United Way of New York City and the Shawn Carter Scholarship Foundation—Carnegie Hall’s first concert where a hip-hop artist topped the bill—ambition is just as key.

Jay took the stage clad in a white tuxedo jacket and shades, ever the charismatic leading man—he welcomed all the “beautiful people” (and beautiful they were; people clad in gowns and tuxes rubbed elbows with concertgoers wearing Giants jerseys and, uh, dresses from Forever 21) and went right into the evening’s entertainment. His band for the evening—an orchestra conducted by the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra’s Jeri Lynne Johnson and augmented by ?uestlove’s Illadelphonics—provided the right amount of bombast. Jay might be used to playing arenas (I last saw him at Madison Square Garden in 2009) but he and his lighting designers were able to transform the Carnegie Hall space effectively, using projections to turn its ornate stage into a grimy subway station and an opulent room with a view of the Louvre Pyramid. As a snippet of Gil Scott-Heron’s “New York Is Killing Me” played, a simple projection of a chain-link fence provided a starkly chilling tableau up against the opulent details of the wall, serving as a reminder of why the tickets were so pricey and of Jay’s own background and how he transcended it.

Alicia Keys came out for a spirited rendition of “Empire State Of Mind,” which sent the hometown crowd into a frenzy; her appearance was followed by the arrival of Nas, who was incredibly amped to be on the stage, racing through “N.Y. State of Mind” and “If I Ruled The World,” his hunger barely satiated by the fact that he was performing in front of people who had paid as much as $5,000 to be in the building. (Later on, at the 40/40 Club for the afterparty, he and Jay would split wings and champagne.) After the two guests left the stage the rest of the night belonged to Jay, the night’s excitement building with each spirited, maxed-out rendition of a chunk of his catalog—”Hard-Knock Life,” “H to the Izzo,” “On To The Next One”—the room feeding off his obvious glee at being on the Carnegie stage, breaking down boundaries and reworking the idea of what “important” music should be. He put an exclamation point on “99 Problems” by saying, “There goes that rumor,” in response to the Internet-borne scuttlebutt that he’d stop saying “bitch” in that song’s lyrics in honor of him having a daughter.

But his willingness to leave one of his biggest hits unexpurgated didn’t mean his soft side was nonexistent. After a particularly touching rendition of “Song Cry” he asked the crowd to put one hand in the air “for Blue”—Blue Ivy, now a month old—and he went into “Glory,” the song he released shortly after her birth. The performance was tender and humble, the musical equivalent of a beaming new dad passing out cigars to anyone who just happened to be in the waiting room; “All the very proud parents in the room, make some noise,” he said midway through. The room collapsed and somehow became even more intimate, and when he noted at the end that he was a bit worried about making it through the song—”That was rough,” he said—he obviously wasn’t kidding.

“I can’t believe we’re in Carnegie Hall,” he then said, pointing out how great the people in the audience looked and how Yankees pitcher C.C. Sabathia was among the finery-clad members of the audience. “I wanna thank New York City—you made Roc-A-Fella what it is,” he declared. The celebratory “Encore” followed, and Jay exited, causing some people to think that the show was over and head for the doors.

But that wasn’t all. When he returned to the stage, clad in a black t-shirt, black cap, and chain, he ran through older bits of his catalog and worked the crowd into a frenzy—”What More Can I Say,” “Big Pimpin’.” While the official set list closed with “Young Forever,” the sorta-uplifting-but-not-really Blueprint III track that interpolates Alphaville’s prom staple “Forever Young,” Jay had other plans: He wanted to go up and perform with the people. To that end, he ran up to the balcony (only the first one, although he’d wanted to go up top to the cheap seats) and ran through snippets of a few songs for “everybody in the building that was there with us from day one”—”So Ghetto,” “Brooklyn’s Finest.” This thrilled the two guys at its end, who were in full freak-out mode from note one. (Their seats hung almost over the stage, so it was hard to not notice them throwing diamonds and going so bananas that I was worried one of them might faceplant into Liza Minnelli’s row.) The encore to the encore was seemingly over in a blink, but it was a fitting end to the night, Jay dressed in streetwear but still ruling the roost, thrilling the people who paid top dollar to see him by letting them get close up for a few seconds. Because while ambition is key as far as getting to Carnegie Hall’s legendary stage, charisma helps keep people watching until the very end.

Critical bias: Seriously underdressed.

Overheard: [woman in front of me gesturing excitedly/confusedly when Nas came on stage]

Random notebook dump: The “throwing up the diamonds” gesture is not all that dissimilar to the way one contorts the hands in order to hold a digital camera.

Set list:
Thank You
Heart of the City
Most Kings (freestyle)
You Don’t Know
New York State Of Mind / New York, New York / New York Is Killing Me
We Live In Brooklyn
Empire State of Mind (w/Alicia Keys)
N.Y. State of Mind (Nas)
If I Ruled The World (Nas/Alicia Keys)
Where I’m From
Run This Town
Roc Boys
Dirt Off Your Shoulder
I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)
On To The Kext One
Hard-Knock Life
H To The Izzo
99 Problems
Song Cry

What More Can I Say
Jigga My Nigga
Jigga What
Big Pimpin’
Young Forever

[Balcony medley]