Earlier this week, when clips of Jay-Z’s lyrics from songs like “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” and “Justify My Thug” popped up on the curved Art Deco-style limestone facade of the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, Passers-by could only speculate on the occasion of the sudden change of building. A surprise prom for the rapper’s house? A tribute to hip-hop’s 50th anniversary this summer?
It turns out that the answer was not – and also a secret even from the man himself.
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, who played instrumental versions of his songs on the intro, and an extended archive of the work. A gallery he never asked for inside.
“I know he wouldn’t let us do that,” said Desiree Perez, CEO of Jay-Z’s entertainment empire Roc Nation, about keeping such elaborate plans from his boss. “This could never have happened if he was involved.”
Featuring artwork, music, memorabilia, ephemera, and a full-scale recreation of touchstones from a sprawling career, “Hof Book” which will run through the summer, might seem more at home at the Brooklyn Museum down the block. But by installing the façade across eight zones of a functioning library, its architects aim to bring the aspirational extravagance of celebrities to a free public sanctuary just a few miles from the Marcy homes where Jay-Z grew up.
“Jay belongs to the people,” Perez said. “It’s a place that feels good. It’s not scary. A lot of people go to the museum, but a lot of people don’t.”
Only the Thursday debut was meant to be an exclusive. After a private tour through his own memories, Jay-Z made himself scarce when the tightly controlled doors opened, content to let VIP guests among representations of his many guises, from Mafioso MC to Boardroom to Social Justice.
Even his elusive wife, Beyoncé, mingled more, at least momentarily, as crowds gathered outside to catch glimpses of Jay-Z’s extended world — athletes like Jason Tatum and Robinson Kano; musicians Lil Uzi Vert, DJ Khaled and Questlove; Director Josh Safdie and entrepreneur Michael Rubin.
By Friday, when the show opens to the public, the appetizers and drinks—Jay-Z’s trademarks, of course—will be gone. But remaining among the collections are figurines, sneakers, plaques, platinum plaques, awards and news clippings associated with Jay-Z’s 13 albums and the companies he founded, including Rocawear and Tidal.
The library had initially offered Jay-Z as a tribute to its annual fund-raiser. But when its CEO, Linda E. Johnson — the wife of another Jay-Z ally, developer Bruce Ratner — pitched the idea to Roc Nation’s Perez, and the pair pivoted.
“I just asked her, ‘How big is the library?'” Perez recalled. “And when it said 350,000 square feet, I couldn’t believe it.”
Throughout the pandemic, Perez and Rock Nation have been planning to showcase artifacts that have conveyed Jay-Z’s influence across music, business, and broader culture, including the pallets’ worth of master recordings he’s repossessed over the years.
“This archive belongs in Brooklyn,” said Johnson, who oversaw the merger of the Brooklyn Public Library and the Brooklyn Historical Society.
Together, the teams began planning “The Book of Hov” in January, enlisting production designers Bruce and Shelly Rodgers, Emmy-winning veterans of the Super Bowl halftime show, as well as creative agency General Idea to conceptualize the bespoke project. and implement it.
It wasn’t just a memorabilia show. Outside the library’s main patio, under Jay-Z’s massive deck, is now a complete replica of the main room of Baseline Recording Studios, where Jay-Z created some of his most famous songs. Every detail had to be correct, down to the size of the TV and the sink of Dum Dums on the counter.
“They had the wrong couch, the wrong soundboard,” said Roc Nation CEO and longtime friend of Jay-Z’s, Juan Perez, who engineered the original studio and provided plenty of feedback for the recreation.
Another area of the library features playable turntables and vinyl representing samples used in Jay-Z’s catalog, surrounded by wrapped tape reels, flexi disks, and CDs containing his original music.
Bruce Rodgers, a production designer now working on his 18th halftime show, described the project as “perhaps the most intense installation ever”, adding: “We didn’t want to interrupt the normal workings of the library, but we did want to make a statement.” This included flying in West Coast “ninjas” who could zip up and down the building to pin the lyric facade in time.
“People thought I was a little out of my mind,” said Johnson, the library’s executive director. “I don’t think I’d go out of my way to say that this is the biggest show we’ve ever done.”
She added that while the valuables would require additional security, the Brooklyn Public Library did not pay for any of the productions for this show. “The Roc Nation is doing a lot for us financially,” Johnson said, including a large donation tied to the gala in October, when Jay-Z and his mother, Gloria Carter, will be honored.
Meanwhile, Jay-Z will also, perhaps inadvertently, help with sign-ups. In addition to the lottery for the fair itself, the library produces 13 limited edition assorted library cards featuring their homegrown star—one for each album.
“I worry about the crowds,” Johnson said, expressing a similar panic and excitement. “I think we’ll run out.”