“We gon’ step on all those lines that separate us tonight; you’re about to witness music at a very high level.”
Jay-Z made this characteristically bravado-laden declaration three songs into his set at New York City’s Carnegie Hall last night, the second of two charity shows benefiting the United Way and the Shawn Carter Scholarship Foundation that he performed this week. Much has been said about cultural ramifications of a night like this, a triumphant chapter in a rags to riches story so improbable that Horatio Alger himself would never have envisioned penning it. It was clear from the outset of the show that Jay-Z had every intention of delivering on that ambitious bill of goods —when was the last time anyone attempted to put on a hip hop show featuring a 20-plus piece symphony orchestra for an audience filled with (primarily rich white) people in suits?—but by the end of the show, I couldn’t help but feel like he wasn’t quite able to achieve both of those audacious goals equally.
First, the scene. Carnegie Hall is one of our country’s most legendary musical venues, and also one of our most exclusive. Not just anyone is allowed to perform here, nor is just anyone necessarily allowed to attend a gig there. As a means of showing respect to the 121-year-old venue and all that it symbolizes, attendees of this two-night stand were encouraged to dress formally for the occasion; like a good general, Hov made sure to follow his own directive. Taking the stage a few minutes after 10 p.m. in white tuxedo jacket, black tux pants, a dapper black bow-tie and stylish shades, J-Hova looked like the long lost sixth member of the Rat Pack as he performed “Public Service Announcement” off his 2003 LP, The Black Album. The audience ate it up, leaping to their feet and waving their well-manicured hands in the air like they just didn’t care, perhaps no one more so than his wife Beyoncé. The new mom snuck into her box seat (stage right, closest to the stage) just as the house lights dimmed and proceeded to emphatically dance in a standing position for most of the show’s nearly two-hour runtime.
The energy in the room during the set’s first six songs or so was undeniably high, bolstered by Jay’s charisma and the “Holy crap, we’re seeing a real live hip hop show at CARNEGIE HALL” factor that permeated everyone in attendance’s headspace. It only took four songs for the familiar scent of marijuana to waft its way up to the box where I sat, and even less time for the models sitting two boxes to my left to stand on top of their elegant, velvet-covered chairs and commence fist-pumping. By the time Alicia Keys made her way on stage for a triumphant version of “Empire State Of Mind,” there was nowhere left for the enthusiasm present in the room to go but down. And down it went.
Jay-Z ceded the stage to the Queens-repping rapper Nas after “Empire State Of Mind,” a move that would’ve sent the audience at Hot 97’s Summer Jam into a frenzy, but one that turned this particular crowd a bit listless. You see, while there’s definitely some societal caché to seeing a world famous billionaire businessman like Jay-Z perform, it’s a bit trickier for the 1% to brag to their golfing buddies about seeing Nas perform “If I Ruled The World.” Now, this isn’t to say that this wasn’t a genuine moment, musically speaking, because it was! Rather, it’s more that the specialness of seeing Nas collaborate with Alicia Keys —she sang Lauryn Hill‘s lines from the original— flew over the head of a good chunk of the audience.
Jay was off stage for a good five or six minutes; it’s quite possible that he was nursing a bit of a cold. (Near the top of the show, he sipped from his Ace Of Spades bottle, but weirdly confessed to the hoity-toity audience that “Don’t worry, it’s only tea.”) He struggled to regain the full attention of the audience after his brief respite, and as a result, the rapport between performer and audience diminished somewhat. In other words, the “vibe” was palpably different. Songs like “Run This Town” (which featured piped-in vocals from Rihanna) and “Hard Knock Life” never fully took shape, as their backing beats drowned out the overmatched orchestra. By the time Jay-Z got around to performing “Girls Girls Girls” and “Song Cry,” most of the audience had taken their seats (including Bey, who noticeably was not down with singing along to the former).
That said, it wasn’t like people started drifting out early, anxious to try to beat the rush. When Jay-Z dropped “Big Pimpin” as the fourth of his five song encore, throbbing bass-heavy beats were bouncing around the acoustically flawless room in a way that Carnegie Hall architect William Tuthill Bernett certainly never accounted for. At that point of the show, nearly two hours in, every single butt in the building was out of its seat. This inspired Jay-Z to make his way to the cheap seats (which, in this case, were not cheap at all) in the auditorium’s second uppermost balcony, where he closed the show by encouraging the audience to rap the first verse of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy.” Considering the audience’s socioeconomic makeup, you can probably guess that this was a fairly anticlimactic way to wrap up the show.
By bringing an ambitious hip hop show to such an unlikely institution AND doing it all for charity, there’s little doubt that Jay-Z accomplished all of the goals he had for this special set of concerts. By playing a show for a crowd largely comprised of tuxedo-clad members of the 1%, though, I can’t say that he exactly succeeded in wiping away those pesky “lines that separate us.” Then again, he never promised to. He simply proffered up that he was going to “step” on them. With that in mind, as far as memorable strides are concerned, Jay-Z’s Carnegie Hall shows rest comfortably somewhere between a small step and a giant leap.
“Public Service Announcement” / “Thank You” / “Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love)” / “Most Kingz” / “New York State Of Mind (Interlude)” / “New York Is Killing Me (Interlude)” / “Empire State Of Mind” (featuring Alicia Keys) / “N.Y. State Of Mind” (featuring Nas)” / “If I Ruled The World” (featuring Nas and Alicia Keys) / “Run This Town” / “Roc Boys” / “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” / “I Just Wanna Love Ya” / “On To The Next One” / “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” / “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” / “99 Problems” / “Girls Girls Girls” / “Song Cry” / “Glory” / “Encore”
Encore: “What More Can I Say” / “Jigga My N****” / “N**** What, N***** Who” / “Big Pimpin” / “Forever Young”
[Photos: Getty Images, Mark Graham’s iPhone]