My life in the late 1990s was not unlike that of most suburban white girls. Saturday morning soccer games, hours spent waiting for my Hogwarts acceptance letter to come, and so on. However, unlike the majority of other eight-and-nine-year-olds at the time, I was also beginning to develop a soul-deep love for Shawn Carter, also known as Jay-Z, Hova, Hov, or Jigga Man.
Long before middle school dances introduced the awkwardly grinding 12-year-old masses to Lil Jon and Nelly, I would sit hunched over my stereo for hours at a time, tuned to the local hip-hop and R&B station, waiting for “Money Ain’t a Thang” to be played. Then I got wise and stole a blank cassette tape from my sister and recorded “Money Ain’t a Thang” off the radio, along with “Hard Knock Life” and “Can I Get a…”. I’d listen to the tape over and over, and over again. I liked the rhythm and his voice, and I got a smug sense of 9-year-old satisfaction when I could guess what naughty word the radio had censored out from the verse.
Fast forward to last Wednesday night. Three minutes into his encore, Jay-Z launched into “Money Ain’t a Thing.” Along with the 18,000 other fans at his fifth sold out show in Brooklyn’s new Barclays Center, I screamed with sheer joy and proceeded to attempt to keep up with Jay as he delivered line after genius line. Sheer joy is how to best describe the night in its entirety, for every song – from the Brooklyn-celebratory “Where I’m From” at the beginning, to 2010’s anthem “Young Forever” at the close – had the crowd on its feet with their Roc diamonds in the air.
Indeed, Wednesday night was the closest I’ve come to understanding what it feels like to be in a cult. From my perch way up in the nosebleeds in the stunning arena, I witnessed, song after song, the crowd soar and pulse and chant to the hooks and rhymes of Jay-Z’s music. The scene was beautiful and exhilarating, yet as I stood there paying homage with the masses, I also felt there was a strange eeriness in what I was witnessing.
The guy before us had sold out eight straight shows, which he was performing in an arena he helped build, in a borough that he put on the pop culture map. He owns a record label, a clothing line, popular New York City clubs, and part of an NBA team, on whose home court he set up his stage. He’s also married to Beyonce, who joined him on stage Saturday night to befittingly top off his eight and final performance.
It was a little frightening to think about how much one person can produce that same kind of adulation and obsession in so many hundreds of thousands of fans. Especially for someone like Jay-Z – whose star power is so intimately linked with brand power, from Rocawear clothing now to the Brooklyn Nets basketball team – it is hard to separate the raw craftsmanship and talent of the musician from the consumerist appeal and cross-industry marketability of the performer.
Jay-Z is truly larger than life, and as incredible as his rise to business mogul is, I wonder if he shouldn’t just tone it down sometimes, let someone else have a chance. I mean, the guy is now a producer of a video game, NBA 2K13. Can’t he just stick to music? Or say no to another chance to market himself? Can’t he try not to make more money?
But ultimately, the eeriest part of being in the Jay-Z cult the other night had nothing to do with branding or his mega-mogul status. It was the fact that despite all of this – despite the sold-out crowd in a sports arena of his own making – he delivered one of the rawest displays of craftsmanship I’ve ever witnessed on stage.
As much as the night was about Jay-Z and celebrating his gigantic career (and, yes, he did suggest we buy Nets’ tickets more than once) the night was more about Brooklyn, about celebrating hip-hop, it’s trajectory from the early 90s to now, and the people who love listening to it. For all the brands he has created and the products he has sponsored, Jay-Z, rapping alone on stage for two hours, was a symbol of a genre of music and a way of being that, as evidenced by the throngs of people cheering his name, has been lifted from the outskirts to the cultural mainstream.
Despite the setting and the circumstance and the products, it was clear that at the very core, to Jay-Z, money still ain’t a thing – or at least it’s not everything.