Occupying a wedge of land between two major Brooklyn arteries, the landmarked Central Library (1941) of the Brooklyn Public Library is designed to resemble an open book. Since mid-July, the building’s concave limestone facade has been covered by white panels emblazoned with lyrics—decidedly not NSFW—from Brooklyn-born rap superstar, billionaire entrepreneur, and cultural force Jay-Z.
If this vaguely recalls, say, Christo wrapping the Reichstag, the latter’s goal, according to the artist’s biographer, was “revelation through concealment.” This reifies an icon. If a few observers grouse on social media about a “darn temple” or “a massive ad for Jay-Z,” most are enthralled by “The Book of HOV,” a multimedia “tribute exhibition” created by Jay-Z’s company, Roc Nation.
It occupies 40,000 square feet of library space, in eight “chapters,” mounted through December 4, the birthday of Jay-Z, born Shawn Carter. (“HOV” and “Hova,” short for “Jehovah,” are nicknames for the rapper.) Visitors call the exhibit—which chronicles Carter’s journey from “the gritty streets of the Marcy Projects” to international superstardom—“dope,” “dazzling,” and “inspirational.” They snap selfies in front of the facade or at the flashing digital cube that introduces the exhibition.
Inside, they pose with a sculpture of Jay-Z’s diamond-style “Roc” hand gesture, see displays of the artist’s 13 albums, and explore the re-creation of his Baseline Studios. The installation, including the dozens of black-clad sentries, glossy brochures, and souvenir library cards, is all paid for by Roc Nation.
The library claims “The Book of HOV” is a win-win: the free show has attracted more than 350,000 visitors. They’ve scarfed up some 100,000 special library cards, one for each of Jay-Z’s 13 albums, from Reasonable Doubt to 4:44. (Only those who live or work in New York State are eligible.)
So what if the Central Library closed for a day to accommodate an opening party, stymieing regular library users, or closed part of the day before the gala? So what if the exhibit has otherwise truncated activities, space, and workflow, with no staff consultation (as a library worker told me)?
The rationales—some addressed in The Architect’s Newspaper—are significant: “The Book of HOV” brings the Brooklyn Public Library, long overshadowed by the New York Public Library, new visitors, new cardholders, and new buzz. It’s delivered new donations—though, I suggest below, less than you might imagine. It’s snazzier than anything the library could’ve produced on its own. If it boosts a billionaire, well, libraries have long promoted wealthy donors, sometimes questionable ones. Also, it honors a Black Brooklynite as a major cultural figure in a prominent public space.
So what’s not to love?
First, it’s overkill. The library could promote a Jay-Z exhibit on the exterior’s mostly blank walls without covering the entire facade with his lyrics, especially since four of the 10 song excerpts are interrupted by the building’s windows, rendering them unreadable.
Oddly, only a few songs are hits, and five are in the bottom half of Vulture’s comprehensive Jay-Z list.) Could it be because many of his iconic lyrics contain profanity, drug references, or the (five-letter) n-word?
The facade hardly confirms a poet on the order of Walt Whitman, as the scholar Michael Eric Dyson contends in Jay-Z: Made in America or, as the exhibit suggests, “Homer with a backbeat.” Why not include the memorable ”Lock my body, can’t trap my mind, I’d rather die enormous than live dormant,” from “Can I Live”? or the dazzling “I jack, I rob, I sin, Aw, man—I’m Jackie Robinson,” from “Brooklyn (Go Hard)”?
More important, the “tribute” cedes curatorial authority to its subject. The show emerged, the New York Times explained, after library CEO/President Linda Johnson proposed that Jay-Z be honored at its gala. Instead, Roc Nation Chief Executive Desiree Perez sought a place to display Jay-Z artifacts.
So Roc Nation, treating Jay’s greatness as a given, exhibits magazine covers, platinum records, Super Bowl credentials, press clips, tickets, setlists, master recordings, and trophies. Visitors can watch videos of interviews and performances and—in a limited opportunity—play vinyl records at two turntables. It’s deep fandom meets auto-hagiography.
While that delights fans, it sells Hova short. If Roc Nation had rented an empty department store rather than claimed central public space, they could have done it their way. For those not steeped in Jay-Z nor stirred by his talismans, it’s a missed opportunity. The exhibit comes with little or no annotation, with song snippets available only online. How have his music and persona evolved? As Adam Serwer wrote in The Atlantic in 2017, his most recent album, 4:44, “represents a profound shift” in Jay-Z.
Without Genius-ing Jay-Z’s lyrics, what’s he saying? So much is about the drug game, which gets short shrift in “The Book of HOV.” This exhibit, the guide states, is “an inspiring reminder that, no matter where you start, with talent, hard work, and a little bit of that ‘Empire State of Mind’”—a song that place-checks drug dealing—“you can change the world.” Unmentioned: Well before Jay-Z’s debut album, he’d made bank as a dealer, as dream hampton, later Jay’s collaborator on Decoded, wrote in a memorable 1998 Vibe cover story.
Jay-Z’s celebration of hustling has become more introspective, but we’re not told that. Consider: MSNBC host Ari Melber’s breakdown of Jay-Z’s intricate “God Did,” which takes on “the failed and the often racist war on drugs,” was insightful enough for the artist to repurpose the segment as a “HOV DID” track. That’s not part of the exhibit, though we do learn of his work as Founding Partner of the Reform Alliance to transform probation and parole.
Nor has the library produced reading lists, though Dyson’s book, Jay-Z’s own Decoded, and Zack O’Malley Greenburg’s Empire State of Mind, among others, explore his life and work. The exhibit displays major articles about Jay-Z, but they’re mostly unreadable under glass or online. (Omitted: incisive articles that address the tension between staying cool and going big.)
Also, by outsourcing the exhibit to Roc Nation, the Brooklyn Public Library has ceded professional authority. Yes, the deep-pocketed company has produced a sometimes dazzling multimedia show, commissioned new artwork, and delivered nifty souvenirs. The exhibit does remind us how Jay-Z has made hip-hop mainstream. One video highlights his triumph at UK’s Glastonbury Festival in 2008, where Jay, the first rapper to headline the event, defused local disdain for hip-hop, especially from Oasis frontman Noel Gallagher, by opening with an Oasis hit.
A New York Times music writer suggested that “its architects are aiming to bring aspirational celebrity extravagance to a free public haven just a few miles from the Marcy Houses where Jay-Z grew up.”
But that means questions about Jay-Z’s career—from his drug-dealing past to previous homophobic lyrics to his role promulgating hip-hop’s “prosperity gospel”—get ignored or downplayed, though he has addressed those issues, in interviews, his lyrics, and his book.
So it’s bad precedent: Should libraries, in exchange for buzz and donations, become vessels for exhibits supplied by celebrities? By sports teams? By corporations?
Though Roc Nation claims this was a surprise for Jay-Z, which seems doubtful, either way it might be the ultimate hustle. Consider: two months into the exhibit, somehow a Lexus with a “JAY-Z” vanity plate appeared on the library’s exterior lawn, complete with security. The caption offers no explanation, but fans know the Lexus was the young rapper’s ride of choice.
Is the Lexus the ultimate objet d’Jay or an automobile promotion? Maybe both. So a genre celebrating conspicuous consumption claims more public space. If the library’s a useful vessel, it’s an awkward fit. “This is a career that was built on the written word,” CEO Johnson told PBS, somehow forgetting that, as the exhibit crows, Jay-Z “did it all without a pen,” composing lyrics in his head.
“Roc Nation and BPL,” a library spokeswoman told Brooklyn Magazine, “are hoping that Brooklyn youth will be inspired by this story and also learn about everything the library has to offer.” But there’s nothing—as critic Theodore Hamm pointed out in Hyperallergic—“about any books, world leaders, or even musicians that inspired young Shawn Carter.”
There’s little evidence the exhibit has fueled use of library materials. (The library reported a nearly 10% increase in check-outs at the Central and Marcy libraries during opening weekend.) The guest book in the lobby shows Jay-Z adulation, not library enthusiasm. Of the library cards distributed, how many have been prized as souvenirs or hawked, with the free exhibit guide, on eBay?
“There’s just not much … to engage with unless you’re a Jay-Z superfan,” wrote critic Adlan Jackson for the web publication HellGate. But superfans are legion. After all, Jay-Z has sold 140 million records and, in 2012, opened the Barclays Center with eight shows.
“The Book of HOV” is especially popular with Black visitors, who express appreciation and awe for this mainstream endorsement of hip-hop, Black culture, and a son of Brooklyn. (This year is the 50th anniversary of hip-hop.) As one middle-aged woman exclaimed, looking at the Jay-Z album covers, “These are my albums right here. I love these freaking albums.” Jay-Z, State Sen. Zellnor Myrie told Brooklyn Magazine, “provided the soundtrack” to his youth. “And I’m just really geeked … that the display’s in my district, and that we get to celebrate that type of greatness. We get to see ourselves in that.”Salon columnist D. Watkins recounted how friends traveled to visit the exhibit: “That is a testament to the power of Jay-Z’s music.”
No doubt. But it offers little elaboration or complication. Inside that main lobby, festooned with giant Jay-Z images, a display case contains a sign, “Welcome to the Marcy Houses,” the Bedford-Stuyvesant housing project where Jay-Z was born.
It’s a missed opportunity to inform visitors how public housing is underfunded or how conditions compare to those Jay-Z described. Rather, Marcy is where Jay-Z, who’s “one of one,” as exhibit narrator Angie Martinez intones, is from.
In the library’s main lobby, also without context, is a prominent model of the Barclays Center, from SHoP, the architecture firm that wrapped the arena in its distinctive brown metal skin. Missing are corporate logos and advertising screens. (Arena developer Bruce Ratner, by the way, is married to library head Johnson.)
Also absent: the three towers that now flank the arena, containing apartments far less “affordable” than promised when Jay-Z—the “resident Brooklyn-credibility totem” (to quote David Roth)—helped Ratner get his larger project, known as Atlantic Yards, approved. A few seconds of video, both outside and upstairs, show Jay-Z, triumphant, at the arena.
While Jay-Z’s “market-friendly image of racial difference and oppositional cool” may have generated support for Ratner’s project, as scholar Amanda Boston wrote, it “also promoted a colorblind narrative of neoliberal urbanism in service of capital.” Today, Jay-Z is helping pitch a casino for Times Square. That’s not in the exhibit, either.
“Roc Nation helped the [NFL] shape social and criminal justice reform efforts,” the exhibit states, citing how the league, among other things, gave more than $250 million to social justice organizations. Jay-Z and Roc Nation, we’re told, “brilliantly produced” the first Super Bowl halftime show headlined with rap.
But Jay-Z’s alliance with the league, as Nation columnist Dave Zirin contended, was a strategy toward team ownership himself. Jay-Z then “was blessing [a league that] still resists hiring black coaches, and blackballs Colin Kaepernick.”
Still, it’s hard to resist Jay-Z’s jubilant, compelling, and triumphant songs. So even for a critic of rap capitalism, as Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal acknowledges, “the artist who lives most in my head is Jay-Z.”
“The Book of HOV” salutes Jay-Z’s enormous entrepreneurial success, controlling “his own financial destiny by building generational wealth,” including Rocawear apparel, 40/40 Club sports bars, and the streaming platform Tidal. Again, it’s more complicated.
The exhibit positions Jay-Z’s champagne, Armand de Brignac, as a tale of entrepreneurial triumph, as the star, recoiling from racist comments from previous favorite Cristal, built a new brand. Unmentioned: as biographer Greenburg wrote, Armand de Brignac is a triumph of marketing, since a bottle that costs perhaps 10 euros to produce has been transformed into a luxury object retailing for $300.
The exhibit also includes a Che Guevara t-shirt; the caption states “Shirt Worn During the Filming of MTV Unplugged.” Missing is writer Elizabeth Mendez Berry’s Village Voice critique of his accompanying platinum chain: “Jay-Z is a hustler.” Also absent: Jay-Z’s response, in his song “Public Service Announcement”: “I’m like Che Guevara with bling on, I’m complex.”
“The Book of HOV” hails Jay-Z for “us[ing] his pen to condemn the war on drugs” and says it shows “how he morphed from a street-smart hustler to a globally revered music mogul.” That downplays the gangster culture he has glamorized, monetized, analyzed, and lamented. Yes, in a 2017 interview with the New York Times’ Dean Baquet, Jay-Z reflected, “Because knowing what I know now, you know, you can’t sacrifice others for your life.” At the library, though, you just see the Times magazine cover.
An installation in the main lobby features two pages from Decoded and a basketball hoop, referencing the song “Where I’m From,” which tells tales of Marcy. But the display, created for the book’s publicity rollout, is bowdlerized to inscrutability: asterisks substitute for 11 words, obscuring hammers (guns), weight (drugs), grams (drugs), boosters (shoplifters), and multiple instances of niggas. (“Oprah … still can’t get past the n-word issue,” Jay-Z wrote in Decoded, “To me, it’s just a word, a word whose power is owned by the user, and his or her intention.”)
The exhibit is full of sly citations to Jay-Z’s catalog, including, of course, “Business, Man.” A section called “Hov Did That” recounts his business and professional successes, such as being welcomed at the White House or playing Carnegie Hall: “Hov escaped the culture’s stereotypical headlock so he could teach the culture to transcend its negative views.” OK, but the quote referenced, from “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” shows the artist critically reflecting on his past:
Like I told you sell drugs, no, Hov did that
So hopefully you won’t have to go through that
Roc Nation spent “millions” on the exhibit, surely its largest expense. Jay-Z’s willingness to be honored at the gala earned the library $1.5 million from ticket buyers. A good haul? Last year’s gala grossed $1.3 million, before $425,000 in expenses, so this year’s adjustment is likely similar. (The library’s operating support and revenue last year totaled $209.3 million, including $138-million from the city. A just-announced 5% budget reduction will cut Sunday service, materials, and more.)
A week into the exhibit’s run, Jay-Z’s Shawn Carter Foundation and Robert Kraft’s Foundation to Combat Antisemitism gave the library $1.5 million for its Books Unbanned initiative, which offers teens nationwide access to digital collections. (It’s a good bet that New England Patriots owner Kraft, who’s had to rebuild his reputation, contributed all or most of the money.)
Roc Nation also donated more than 300 books, echoing Jay-Z’s private collection—mostly heavy tomes in art, fashion, and architecture—to both the Central Library and the Marcy branch. (That said, when I asked at Marcy about the books, the clerk was dumbfounded.) At Central, I counted a stack of 59 copies of Decoded.
All told, wouldn’t Roc Nation have to spend far more to rent such a prominent public space, including the library facade?
At the Central Library’s Major Owens Welcome Center, after collecting my souvenir Jay-Z library card—not usable unless I deactivated my current card—I asked the clerk if they had any information about Major Owens. “Unfortunately, we don’t,” he replied.
That was a lost opportunity. Because Major Owens, as the library suggests on its website, was “one of one” himself. A Black librarian who moved from community outreach work to antipoverty efforts in the administration of Mayor John Lindsay. Owens later served in Congress, where he was dubbed, due to his unique status, “the librarian in Congress.” Owens, too, could be an “inspiring reminder,” an example of “betting on yourself.”
Though commentator Melber and CBS host Gayle King, in the recent JAY-Z and Gayle King: Brooklyn’s Own special, saluted the facade installation, the obeisance to Jay-Z obscures two exterior aphorisms that are, essentially, the library’s mission statement.
So lyrics to “Things That U Do” (#271 on Vulture’s list) obscure the incised eloquence of former Board Chair Roscoe C. Brown: “The Brooklyn Public Library through the joining of municipal enterprise and private generosity offers to all the people perpetual and free access to the knowledge and the thought of all the ages.”
Opposite, lyrics to “Justify My Thug” (#228 on Vulture’s list; it samples Madonna’s “Justify My Love”) cover another Brown epigram: “Here are enshrined the longing of great hearts and noble things that tower above the tide, the magic word that winged wonder starts, the garnered wisdom that has never died.”
That said, the library’s exterior could use an update. Over the center doors, not covered by Jay-Z lyrics, are 15 bronze sculptures of characters and personages from American literature. Some are classics (such as Meg from Little Women) and others fusty. But Brer Rabbit, from Tales of Uncle Remus, part of a “romanticized snapshot of plantation life,” as one critic put it, awkwardly counterpoints the letters BLM, appended above after protestors gathered outside the library in response to George Floyd’s 2020 murder by Minneapolis police.
After all, there are no authors of color nor updated American stories. Once that Roc Nation-provided facade is removed, the library might consider periodic, limited, exterior modifications to share the “magic word that winged wonder starts.” But not if it’s a corporate “tribute.”
Photos by the author.