Earlier this week, when passages of Jay-Z lyrics from songs like “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” and “Justify My Thug” appeared on the Art Deco-style, curved limestone facade of the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, fans and passers-by could only speculate on occasion about the sudden remodeling of the building. A surprise concert for the rapper’s home town? A tribute to hip-hop’s 50th anniversary this summer?
The answer, it turned out, was neither – and also a secret even from the man himself.
On Thursday evening, when Jay-Z entered the library for a private event surrounded by an inner circle of family, friends and business associates, he was greeted by his live band playing instrumental versions of his hits outside, and a career-spanning archive. exposure he never asked for internally.
“I know he wouldn’t let us do this,” Desiree Perez, the chief executive of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation entertainment empire, said of keeping such elaborate plans from the boss. “This could never have happened if he had been involved.”
Featuring artwork, music, memorabilia, ephemera and large-scale recreations of touchstones from an extensive career, “The Book of Hov,” which will run through the summer, might seem more at home at the Brooklyn Museum down the block. But by installing the showcase across eight zones of a working library, its architects aim to bring an aspirational celebrity extravaganza to a free public haven just a few miles from the Marcy Houses where Jay-Z grew up.
“Jay belongs to the people,” Perez said. “It’s a place that feels comfortable. It’s not scary. A lot of people go to the museum, but a lot of people don’t.”
Only the debut on Thursday was meant to be exclusive. Following a private tour through his own memories, Jay-Z made himself scarce as the tightly guarded doors opened, content to leave the VIP guests among representations of his many likenesses, from Mafioso MC to boardroom mogul to social justice tug-of-war.
Even his elusive wife, Beyoncé, blended in more, at least momentarily, as crowds gathered outside to catch a glimpse of Jay-Z’s extended universe — athletes like Jayson Tatum and Robinson Cano; the musicians Lil Uzi Vert, DJ Khaled and Questlove; the director Josh Safdie and the businessman Michael Rubin.
By Friday, when the exhibit opens to the masses, the hors d’oeuvres and passed-out drinks — Jay-Z’s trademarks, naturally — would be gone. But among the piles remain statues, sneakers, paintings, platinum plaques, trophies and news clippings related to Jay-Z’s 13 albums and the companies he founded, including Rocawear and Tidal.
The library initially featured Jay-Z as an honoree for its annual fundraising gala. But when its chief executive, Linda E. Johnson — the wife of another Jay-Z ally, developer Bruce Ratner — floated the idea to Roc Nation’s Perez, the pair pivoted.
“I just asked her, ‘How big is the library?'” Perez recalled. “And when she said 350,000 square feet, I couldn’t believe it.”
During the pandemic, Perez and Roc Nation conspired to display artifacts that conveyed Jay-Z’s influence across music, business and broader culture, including the value of the pallets of master recordings he has regained ownership of over the years.
“That archive belongs in Brooklyn,” said Johnson, who oversaw the merger of the Brooklyn Public Library and Brooklyn Historical Society.
Together, the teams began planning “The Book of Hov” in January, tapping production designers Bruce and Shelley Rodgers, Emmy-winning veterans of the Super Bowl halftime show, as well as creative agency General Idea to conceive and execute the complex project. .
It wasn’t just showing memorabilia. Beyond the library’s main atrium, beneath an enormous Jay-Z collage, now sits a full-scale replica of the main room of Baseline Recording Studios, where Jay-Z created some of his best-known songs. Every detail had to be right, down to the size of the TV and the tub of Dum Dums on the counter.
“They had the wrong couch, the wrong soundboard,” said Juan Perez, a Roc Nation executive and longtime friend of Jay-Z, who designed the original studio and provided many notes for the entertainment.
Another area of the library has playable turntables and vinyl representing the samples used across Jay-Z’s catalog, surrounded by the enclosed tape reels, floppy disks and CDs containing his original music.
Bruce Rodgers, the production designer now working on his 18th Super Bowl halftime show, called the project “probably the most intensive installation I’ve ever been involved in,” adding: “We didn’t want to disrupt the normal operation of the library. , but we wanted to make a statement.” This included flying in “ninjas” from the West Coast that could rappel up and down the building to install the lyrical facade in time.
“People thought I was a little crazy,” said Johnson, the library executive. “I don’t think I would go out on a limb to say this is the biggest exhibition we’ve ever done.”
While the assets will require additional security, Brooklyn Public Library has not paid for any of the production for the show, she added. “Roc Nation does a lot for us financially,” Johnson said, including a large donation tied to the party in October, when Jay-Z and his mother, Gloria Carter, will be honored.
In the meantime, Jay-Z will also help, perhaps unknowingly, with sign-ups. In addition to the draw of the exhibition itself, the library is producing 13 limited edition library card varieties featuring its homegrown star – one for each album.
“I worry about crowds,” Johnson said, sounding equal parts trepidation and excitement. “We’ll run out, I suspect.”