"I've been on many stages, been around the world, but nothing feels like tonight," Jay-Z told the crowd last night during his inaugural blow-out at Brooklyn's Barclays Center. He reeled off a few of the other noted houses he's rocked: the Grammys, Glastonbury, Coachella, Bonnaroo, the Apollo Theater. "Nothing feels like tonight, Brooklyn. I swear to God."
Jay's performance – the first ever in the newly constructed venue, with seven more sold-out shows scheduled over the next week – was a many-layered milestone. While he famously grew up in Brooklyn's Marcy Houses, this was his first major show of this size in his home borough. As partial owner of the NBA's rechristened Brooklyn Nets, he helped get this billion-dollar basketball arena built not far from his old neighborhood. His rise to this level of success and cultural power is an incredible American story, and he is justifiably proud.
He opened the show aptly with 1997's classic "Where I'm From." It's a staple of his live sets, a song he's performed hundreds of times if not more. Last night – center stage in jeans and a black puffy vest over a custom Nets jersey, gold chains hanging down his chest – he attacked the verses with a new force, spitting out precise syllables: "I'm from where the hammers rung, news cameras never come. . . ."
Jay stood alone under a spotlight on the narrow stage, backed by a huge sloping video screen and a tight live band built into perches above him. He paid tribute to a fallen mentor early on by building the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Kick in the Door" and "Juicy" into the set list. Later, shortly after an authoritative "99 Problems," he walked to a far corner of the stage and retrieved a glittering gold bottle, requesting respectful silence as he poured out a little bubbly for Biggie: "See, you can stunt like that when you own the whole place." He turned reflective, reminiscing aloud about his journey from the projects to this stage. "You don't mind if I take my time? I'm really overwhelmed a little bit."
He channeled the night's emotions into a top-notch rendition of the hit parade he's road tested at festivals and arenas over the last few years, covering his career from 1996's Reasonable Doubt to 2009's The Blueprint 3 in a little over an hour. He delivered the key lines in 2001's great "Heart of the City" with extra emphasis, punching the air as he rapped, "I told you in '96 that I came to take this shit, and I did."
As the main set wound down, Jay-Z looked out at the crowd of 18,000 reverent fans, savoring the moment. "Shit, what an amazing feeling tonight," he said again. "This night was a dream." He thanked everyone sincerely while the chords of 2003's "Encore" rolled quietly on. Someone in the crowd passed a Brooklyn Dodgers jersey with Jackie Robinson's name on it up to the stage, and he held it up with pride: "Look how far we've come."
Jay told Rolling Stone a few days ago that there would be no guests at his Barclays Center shows. ("This is my one chance to be selfish!" he kidded.) He kept that promise until the encore, when he surprised the arena by bringing out Bed-Stuy legend Big Daddy Kane, who ripped through 1988's "Ain't No Half-Steppin'" and 1989's "Warm It Up, Kane," while busting out some old-school moves (complete with a full jumping split) with his original backup dancers Scoob and Scrap. "We have to understand our history," said Jay-Z appreciatively.
"Okay, I'm still not ready to leave," he went on after Kane left, drawing deafening cheers. Jay ran through a couple of recent guest verses – reveling in the double-time flow of G.O.O.D. Music's "Clique" and the luxurious style of Rick Ross' "3 Kings." "I got a million of these!" he crowed.
But the hour was growing late. Jay-Z sent us home with a heartfelt speech about the "genius-level talent" that he feels lies within everyone. "I ain't no different from anyone in this room, and now I'm standing on this stage, living proof," he said. And with that, it was finally time to say goodbye – if only so he could rest up for all the other shows he has coming up. "There's no motherfucking curfew," he said with a grin. "But I've really got to go."
"Where I'm From"
"Brooklyn Go Hard"
"Kick in the Door" (Notorious B.I.G.)
"Juicy" (Notorious B.I.G.)
"U Don't Know"
"Run This Town"
"Empire State of Mind"
"On to the Next One"
"Dirt Off Your Shoulder"
"I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)"
"Dead Presidents II"
"Can I Live"
"Jigga My N----"
"Jigga What, Jigga Who"
"Hard Knock Life"
"Heart of the City"
(end of main set)
"What More Can I Say"
"Do It Again (Put Ya Hands Up)"
Big Daddy Kane mini-set: "Ain't No Half-Steppin'," "Warm It Up, Kane"
"Best of Me Pt. 2"
"Money Ain't a Thang"
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