From Nitsuh Abede’s amusing take on Jay-Z’s appearance at Carnegie Hall:
Last fall, Jay-Z published a book, Decoded, about his life and lyrics. Its text is one of the most marvelously deft pieces of self-definition I have ever seen — a gorgeous rhetorical performance that seemed designed to persuade every last reader, and maybe especially the sorts of readers who spend time at Carnegie Hall, that they have to respect both hip-hop and Carter himself. It spoke of the lessons he learned as a youth in the projects, and from his work as a crack dealer, and how they play out in his songs — but it spoke of all that in the gentle, reflective voice of someone who’s now a tuxedoed philanthropist and thoughtful wordsmith. (It’s like reading a self-made billionaire sausage magnate look back at his years chopping meat on the cutting floor.) More than anything, the book — and the way Carter promoted it with events like an interview at the New York Public Library, with the editor-in-chief of The New Yorker in the front row — seemed like an introduction: Jay-Z explains himself in the language of the cultural elite, and they officially welcome him into their social stratum, thereby relieving themselves of the need to enjoy Mos Def. (Carnegie Hall performance: 2008.) After all, Carter is a rapper who, when co-founding a record label in the mid-nineties, didn’t name it with a pun on, say, a crime figure like John Gotti. He punned on the name Rockefeller — the New York family of trustees, philanthropists, politicians, and so on running straight back to the mindbogglingly wealthy Gilded Age industrialist rivaled only by peers like … Andrew Carnegie, whose name is on this hall.
I mention this only because dextrously switching personas is one of the things that Jay-Z, onstage, is best at — he’s picked up countless different roles over the years, and he manages to play several of them at the same time, charming everyone present. He can be the cheeky popular entertainer, or the tough guy, or the cold businessman, or the elite philanthropist. Like Sinatra, he could perform for wealthy businessmen while also being one of them. He can do a laid-back, giddy cool, which is how he spent much of Tuesday’s show: always making that hand movement that looks like he’s holding a needle and putting the final stitch in the line he’s delivering, just so.
Jay-Z is good at all of these roles. And now that I’ve seen him in a tuxedo doing “Young Forever” to stacked balconies in a concert hall — Alphaville’s eighties slow-dance music pinging sentimentally off the walls, people in formalwear — I think we could add “cruise ship entertainment of your dreams” to your list. So the successful trading continues, in which Jay-Z gets to seem like he’s crashing the cultural institutions of the old-guard elite (even if it’d be a million times more history-making to hear Kronos Quartet played on Hot 97), the cultural institutions of the old-guard elite get to play host to someone genuinely megapopular, a few passengers on the great ship Manhattan have a fine night, and even if you suspect there’s an iceberg involved in all this somewhere, it’s hard to get a clear look at where it might be.