"All those lines that divide us, we gonna step on them." That was Jay-Z at Carnegie Hall on Monday night, as quoted by the New York Times, and by all accounts, smashing boundaries was what Shawn Carter's two-night stand at the hallowed New York venue was all about.
Jay-Z wasn't the first rapper to perform at the century-old concert hal — Wyclef Jean took the stage there in 2001, and MC Lyte in 2009 — but he was surely the one who took the most advantage of the occasion. These were evenings for breaking down barriers (while raising money for charity).
Jay wore a designer tuxedo — and a T-shirt, baseball cap, and chain. He was backed by a 36-piece orchestra — and also the Illadelphonics, featuring the Roots' ?uestlove and neo-soul singer Bilal. The crowd reportedly came in suits and dresses, carrying handbags some of us can't pronounce — and also in T-shirts and at least one New York Giants jersey. The ticket prices ran to $2,500, but the concerts were for charity. The venue was lavish, but Jay-Z's lighting team used projections to turn it into a filthy subway station, or a neighborhood ringed with chain link fences.
Carnegie Hall represents only the latest step in Jay-Z's recent climb to upper-class respectability, from being mimicked by a future president to being taught at a top-notch university. In the essential 2010 book Decoded, Jay made an argument for his lyrics as poetry — an argument that, if you love hip-hop, might've tasted a little bittersweet. Jay-Z's chosen art form is different from poetry, a musical art form rather than a printed one, and ought to be able to appreciated in its own right.
Hova's visit to Carnegie Hall could be seen in a similar light — he's already one of the premier artists of his generation with or without Old Money's approval ... so who needs it? — but watching him up there, even in shaky YouTube footage, it's clear why Jay had to do it. Not because he needs establishment approval. But because the establishment needs him.
Here are some key moments from the concerts:
1. Opening music: "Public Service Announcement." Here's how it all began, with rich strings and an even richer MC reintroducing himself in a whole new setting with a rendition of this Just Blaze-produced The Black Album gem.
2. Jay-Z performs "Glory" for the first time live. On Monday, after finishing this elegantly sentimental ode to Blue Ivy Carter, born last month to Jay and wife Beyoncé, Jay reportedly said, "I didn't think I was gonna make it through that one." Hope nobody's mascara stained their couture.
2. Nas joins Jay-Z onstage. Via MTV, here's footage of Jay's one-time rival, fellow New York rapper Nas, performing his Illmatic classic "N.Y. State of Mind" on Monday.
3. Alicia Keys joins Jay-Z onstage. Nas wasn't Jay's only guest. Alicia Keys joined him, as well. Here you can see her backing Jay on their hit together, "Empire State of Mind" (noticing a Gotham theme here?).
4. Jay-Z keeps "99 Problems" unchanged. "There goes that rumor," Jay reportedly said after Monday's performance of his Black Album classic, referring to erroneous reports the rapper would no longer be saying "bitch" after the birth of his daughter.
5. Jay-Z meets Liza Minnelli. Because Jay-Z met Liza Minnelli. Why aren't these two collaborating at the Grammys?
6. Jay-Z performs in the balcony. More than one report from Jay's Monday night show focused on his ascent into the seats to rap for a couple of the most obviously amped fans. Catch a very expensive, blurry glimpse below. "We got the best seats!"
7. Beyoncé remains flawless. Our society being what it is, the first post-birth sightings of Beyoncé dominated the coverage of both nights' events, effectively drowning out reporting on her husband's second Carnegie show (more likely journalists just didn't get passes). On Monday and Tuesday, the "Countdown" singer reminded us why she is a fabulous pop star and we aren't.