Jay-Z Orchestrates a Historic Night at Carnegie Hall

Alicia Keys, Nas join rap superstar at charity shows

February 8, 2012 12:15 PM ET
Alicia Keys, Jay-Z and Nas perform at Carnegie Hall to Benefit the United Way of New York City.
Alicia Keys, Jay-Z and Nas perform at Carnegie Hall to Benefit the United Way of New York City.
Kevin Mazur/WireImage

“I always wanted to say this in Carnegie Hall,” Jay-Z said last night, midway through the second of his two charity shows this week at the hallowed New York institution. “Is Brooklyn in the house?”

The roar he received in response suggested that his home borough was well-represented among the finely attired patrons of the arts who had handed over as much as $15,000 to be there. All proceeds went to fight poverty via United Way of New York City and the Shawn Carter Scholarship Foundation, organizations that help secure good educations for low-income students – kids like Shawn Carter once was back in Brooklyn.

But that was ages ago. More than any rapper before him, Jay-Z has become part of America's cultural royalty in the past decade – hobnobbing with Oprah and Obama, publishing a book exploring his lyrics’ intricacies, and, oh yeah, selling out arenas whenever he feels like it. Headlining Carnegie Hall was just one more coronation moment in a career full of them.

Dressed to the nines in a tux and dark shades, he brought a thoroughly satisfying selection of old and new classics to life – nothing from his 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt, or last year’s Kanye West collab, Watch the Throne, but the best of everything in between – with help from a 40-piece orchestra and the Illadelphonics, led by the Roots’ Questlove on drums. The set list was more or less the same carefully honed hit parade he’s delivered at Coachella, Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium and countless other venues in recent years. As always, he defined effortless charisma as he recited the well-known lyrics with a little extra energy on this special night. The audience, which included Chris Rock, Jay-Z’s mother Gloria Carter and other luminaries, was in the palm of his hand the entire time.

Alicia Keys came out early on, as she had the previous night, to assist Jay on a thrilling rendition of “Empire State of Mind.” It sounded better than ever in that room – one of the world’s sweetest acoustic spaces – and Jay’s pride in the moment was clear. Next up was a mini-set by Nas, who tore though “N.Y. State of Mind” and “If I Ruled the World” with Keys on piano and vocals. On the former song, Jay actually served as hypeman to his onetime archrival, a remarkable sight for anyone who was paying attention to rap in 2001.

“I’m supposed to talk at this part,” Jay-Z said a few songs later, during the elegant orchestral interlude that followed  “Run This Town.” “But I just want to take it in for a second. I can’t believe we’re in this building tonight.” With that, he launched into 2007’s triumphant “Roc Boys,” given extra heft by the orchestra’s brass section. The hits kept coming: “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” “I Just Wanna Love U,” “Hard Knock Life,” “Izzo.” After a titanic “99 Problems” and an insouciant “Girls, Girls, Girls,” he reached the evening’s most emotional stretch, with the regretful 2001 cut “Song Cry” followed by “Glory,” his heartfelt tribute to newborn daughter Blue Ivy Carter. When the song was over, he let the orchestra ride its mellow beat for a while longer, soaking it in. “Thank you, New York City, for letting me share that moment with you,” he said.

Following a brief encore, he returned to the stage once again – finally ascending to an upper balcony, where he stood among the faithful and teased them with quick bits of a few more favorites, plus a reverent a cappella tribute to a fellow Brooklyn poet who didn’t make it this far. “My homeboy ain’t here to rock these halls the way he would have,” he said before rapping a verse each from the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy” and “Mo Money Mo Problems.” “We gotta sing so loud for B.I.G.”

Set list:
String overture
“Thank You”
“Heart of the City”
“Most Kings”
“U Don’t Know”
Band medley: “New York State of Mind” (Billy Joel cover)/”New York, New York” (Frank Sinatra cover)/”New York Is Killing Me” (Gil Scott-Heron cover)
“Empire State of Mind” (with Alicia Keys)
Nas mini-set: “N.Y. State of Mind,” “If I Ruled the World”
“Where I’m From”
“Run This Town”
“Roc Boys”
“Dirt Off Your Shoulder”
“I Just Wanna Love U”
“On to the Next One”
“Hard Knock Life”
“99 Problems”
“Girls, Girls, Girls”
“Song Cry”
(short break)
“What More Can I Say”
“Jigga My Nigga”
“Jigga What, Jigga Who”
“Big Pimpin’”
“Young Forever”

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