“That’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen,” said Jay Z, as 120,000 hands went up in the air at his request. Last night, Central Park was flooded with nearly 60,000 people who had actively earned their way into the Global Citizen Festival in the fight against poverty (and the pursuit of Jay Z). Fixated on the headlining rapper’s every move, the crowd was knotted into a frenetic bundle that spanned straight into the sparkling skyline. In all the excitement, one thing was for sure: Jay Z knows how to do a New York show.
Before he took the stage, he started off the performance in a way that made the chills unavoidable. With vintage footage of the city taking over the night sky, he let Gil Scott-Heron’s “New York Is Killing Me,” Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” and Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” do all the introducing. The audience sang along to the anthems with passionate ownership, and when they came to “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,” the emotion was palpable. I think half the crowd was choking up by the time he hit the stage and began “Empire State of Mind.” And that is how you play Central Park, ladies and gentleman.
Jay Z’s vigorous setlist at the Global Citizen Festival included “H to the Izzo,” “Big Pimpin’,” “I Just Wanna Love You,” “Tom Ford,” “99 Problems,” “U Don’t Know,” “Onto the Next One,” “Ni**as in Paris” “Clique,” “F***WithMeYouKnowIGotIt,” and “Public Service Announcement (Interlude),” all of which he performed with strength and style. Being that it was a charity event, he started his set with a clear attempt at censorship. But like a game of Jenga, many of the songs were just not structurally sound when he yanked out all the Fs and Ns, so his rapping soon gave way for them. Not that anyone seemed to care. Except, maybe some folks tuning in at home, since the MSNBC censor apparently snoozed through most of the expletives in the live broadcast. Another interesting tidbit: he stopped dead in the middle of “Ni**as in Paris” and started over because the crowd wasn’t singing loudly enough. Not in a Kanye yelling at the handicapped kind of way, but in a tone that was genuinely fun and encouraging, like he wanted everyone to have the best possible experience.
Jay Z had already won us over. When he brought out Beyoncé for a surprise performance, the excitement was bigger than any adjectives I could string together. They wowed the crowd with a striking duet of “Holy Grail,” with Beyoncé singing Justin Timberlake’s parts. The couple then closed the entire festival with “Young Forever,” a remix of the 1984 Alphaville song “Forever Young.” During their performance, an unfathomable amount of lighters began to flicker and dance for miles. As the sea of flames lit up the city, the feeling of total unity seemed to electrify every aspect of the Global Citizen Festival and remind us all why we were there.