It was not how I expected a coronation to go. The security seemed befitting: an ordeal that came with the full compliments of a TSA frisking, only I got to keep my shoes on (my belt, however, was a different story). Our surroundings were suitably majestic, with cathedral-like ceilings, an HD video screen built into a welcoming arc, and, of course, Starbucks offered all over the place. One assumes you could still eat off of the bathroom floor without getting hepatitis. I did feel a bit underdressed in my 80s-throwback Nike t-shirt, Liverpool zip-up sweater, and Sambas, but they did fit with the smoke from dozens of Brooklyn's finest pot strains saturating the open air, which happened to be just in front of our seats, literally the last in the house.
No, they haven’t let the rabble desecrate Westminster Abbey. This odd coronation befits the kind of crown that is being bestowed. In fact, it's the only one of its kind that I can think of. How often does one become royalty through meritocracy (at least if you count record sales, product lines, music labels … I’ll stop there)? For last Monday was the fourth night in a week-long celebration for Sean "Jay-Z" Carter, the official King of Brooklyn.
Ostensibly, the Barclays Center, sitting right at the heart of “downtown” Brooklyn, exists to house the Brooklyn Nets, the perennial also-ran tri-state NBA team that was plucked from New Jersey with all of the fanfare the state usually reserved for the team, which was none at all (believe me – I have a signed Kenny Anderson card). The team's ownership is a curious mix. The principal head is Russian kajillionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who treats the team like that one stray Tiger baseball video game you'd leave at your Grandma's so you wouldn't be bored stiff whenever you visited.
Flanking him is Bruce Ratner, the real estate developer who sees the building as another prong in his economic pitchfork to "revitalize" the area (The IN's Jaya Saxena has all the gory details). The Barclays Center, with its built-in Starbucks and its entrance, sponsored by GEICO, fits in well with the illuminated Walgreens and Target signs on the adjacent Atlantic Center, in marked juxtaposition to the used furniture store on the opposite side of Flatbush Ave. That is a relic of the old Brooklyn, the one that will soon be pushed aside like the homes that were forcibly taken and bulldozed in order to make this real estate dream a reality. This little bit of information isn't shown in the video that plays on a loop on the TV you stare at while the world's slowest concession workers do everything but give you food and drink. This short propaganda video on the building’s construction ends with "Thank You Bruce Ratner!" in the Nets' now-signature white text on a black background. It's the kind of Kremlin-esque touch that I'm sure makes Prokhorov smile.
This building – this brand – is owned by Jay-Z. In strict financial terms, Jay only has a Spud Webb-sized stake in both the team and the arena itself. Culturally? It's all Jigga man. Groups of friends didn’t pose juuust under the main entrance because they wanted to get their favorite centuries-old British-owned financial institution in the frame. Standing in front of Barclays Center means you're standing in front of Jay-Z’s arena. Buying a Brooklyn Nets hat doesn't mean you're a fan of Joe Johnson (or, frankly, have any clue who he is). You're wearing the logo that Jay-Z created for his own team.
Never has a brand had this much cultural cache. If anyone was curious about how true Jay's "I made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can" boast is, check the merch numbers for the end of this NBA season. This was on great display at the concert this Monday, only the fourth in eight sold-out affairs launched to coincide with the building's grand opening. Barclays is the home of the Nets, but this is, and will always be, The House That HOVA Built.
The show was similar in sound and scope to when I saw Jay at the All Points West Festival (RIP) as a last-second replacement for The Beastie Boys (RIP). It was an all-hits affair from throughout his storied career, ranging from "99 Problems" to "Jigga What" and "Can I Live?" There were so many recognizable cuts left to play that he crammed into one ostensible medley that sounded like a Greatest Hits CD left to the controls of an ADD-addled child. The show was almost as relentless as his constant shout-outs to Brooklyn, which totaled somewhere in the low 70s. A proud lad, he.
What was markedly different was his persona, now absolutely filling the arena while traversing a six-by-thirty foot section of stage. He had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand. It was a performance that I'll never forget. Jay long ago assumed the throne of Brooklyn’s rap scene after Notorious BIG was shuffled off this mortal coil. But this was different. Here, miles from the Marcy Projects he called home, Jay helps to erect this shrine for other Brooklynites to aspire to sell out. Here, he shows that you can rise from "the bottom of bottoms" to the top of, well, everything. His reign is as big as the borough, as cemented as the Barclays is into the center of Atlantic and Pacific avenues.
Midway through the concert, before he got us all to sing along to "Young Forever" but after 19,000 Dynasty signs rose in the darkness, Jay-Z made light of the nitpicking going on over just how much of the Nets franchise he owns. "Point 0 this, fractions that," he intoned to the rapturous crowd. "It's still fucking amazing."
Who am I to argue with the king?
Blurry image courtesy of the author's iPhone 4. Special thanks to M-Star and Deejo for the opportunity to attend.