For many years, Jay-Z closed out his concerts with “Encore,” a soothing, triumphant number from “The Black Album,” which at the time of its release in 2003 was billed as something of a retirement. “From Marcy to Madison Square,” he rapped, sketching an arc that had taken him from a Brooklyn housing project to headlining the most symbolically important arena in the country.
Even though this was a night filled with tremendous symbolism, in which a son of the rough end of Brooklyn took his place at the peak of the borough’s revival, it was almost subdued.
“I’ve been on bigger stages. I’ve been all around the world. Nothing feels like tonight,” Jay-Z said, adding later, “I’m really overwhelmed by the moment.”
In 2010, he shared a headlining bill with Eminem at Yankee Stadium, but Friday’s show did not try to match that night’s explosive energy. In February, Jay-Z headlined Carnegie Hall, but this show did not have that one’s knowing class frisson. Instead, this was an ultraminimalist affair.
For almost two hours, the rapper was essentially alone onstage; his band played on risers jutting out from the 45-degree-angle wall behind him. Wearing a custom black No. 4 Nets jersey that read, “CARTER,” his last name, he drew upon almost two decades of Brooklyn-friendly anthems, songs that had long been hits, but that had still been waiting for a home-borough debut of this scale.
Jay-Z opened with the sinister “Where I’m From” and the exuberant “Brooklyn (Go Hard)” and got to “Empire State of Mind,” which was his first No. 1 hit on the Billboard pop chart. Elsewhere, he tweaked some of his lyrics to note the occasion: “New York’s ambassador” in “What More Can I Say?” became “Brooklyn ambassador,” and on “Do It Again (Put Ya Hands Up),” he changed the lyric about a blue Yankees cap to one about a black Nets cap.
The Marcy projects where he grew up were “15 minutes away,” he noted. “I’m from murder, murder Marcyville,” he rapped on “Murda Murda,” before telling the crowd, “Sometimes it’s gonna get real dark in here tonight.”
That was an exaggeration, of course. There was palpable energy in the room throughout the night. Before the show, people gathered outside the arena as lasers of blue light shot out from atop the building.
There was a heavy but not overbearing police presence on the surrounding streets. At the end of the show, Jay-Z showed off some of the cynicism that sticks with people who grew up on the wrong side of power, urging the crowd to be peaceful on its way out. “You know they waiting for us to” make a mistake, he said, using rougher language.
He emphasized meaning over popularity, though often the two went hand in hand. He happily lingered over songs from his 1996 debut album, “Reasonable Doubt,” and sped through plenty of better-known ones. The spare setup did a good job of highlighting the dexterous wordplay that is sometimes obscured by his success. Late in the night, he rapped verses from “Clique” and “3 Kings,” two recent hits that served as a reminder that he was not just capturing past glories, but also still making new ones.
Mostly, though, he was repaying a debt to the borough. During the encore, he brought out the night’s only guest, Big Daddy Kane, the Brooklyn rap legend from the late 1980s to early ’90s, whom Jay-Z would sometimes perform with early in his career. For his short set of classics, Big Daddy Kane was joined by his longtime backup dancers Scoob Lover and Scrap Lover for old routines that were endearing for their slight creakiness.
Jay-Z also did not wait long before acknowledging the Notorious B.I.G., who was killed in 1997; he was a superstar who still had pinnacles yet to reach. Jay-Z led the crowd in rapping his hits “Kick in the Door” and “Juicy,” pausing for emphasis on that song’s celebratory boast: “Spread love, it’s the Brooklyn way.”
And that is what he did, over the course of the night mentioning specific addresses where he had lived — 560 State Street, 534 Flushing Avenue — and insisting he was not any “different than anyone in here tonight.”
That was the unexpected charm of the show, which was but one in a long line of self-coronations for Jay-Z, but which felt like a community gathering. His biggest accomplishment was making something momentous feel utterly normal.