At Large  July 18, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

See Replica of Jay-Z’s Recording Studio in Surprise Exhibition

Photo Credit Gregg Richards

Lyrics from Jay-Z songs appeared on the facade of the Brooklyn Public Library’s main branch ahead of his surprise exhibition “The Book of HOV.”

Would you like to enter the studio where Jay-Z created some of his most celebrated and beloved songs? Well now you can. While the actual studio closed in 2010, curious fans can head to the Brooklyn Public Library to check out a full-scale recreation of the main room of Jay-Z’s Baseline Recording Studios. The room is just one attraction in “The Book of HOV,” a sprawling just-opened exhibition at the main branch of the library that pays tribute to the  life and legacy of the iconic musician. Oh, and the exhibition was a complete surprise to the artist.

For the past year, the team at his entertainment company Roc Nation worked in secret to organize a remarkable showcase that celebrates Jay-Z's unparalleled career, featuring artwork, memorabilia, sneakers, never before seen images, and clothing from the artist’s archives in three major installations throughout the library. 

“I know he wouldn’t let us do this,” Desiree Perez, the chief executive of Roc Nation, told the New York Times about keeping the exhibition under wraps. “This could never happen if he was involved.”

Photo Credit Gregg Richards

Installation view of "The Book of HOV" at the Brooklyn Public Library

Born Shawn Corey Carter, Jay-Z grew up on the streets of Brooklyn. He was raised at the Marcy Houses  a public housing project in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood just down the block from the BPL. Raised by a single mother with his three older siblings, Carter had a tough childhood: he dropped out of high school, sold crack cocaine, and was shot multiple times. But despite the odds, his musical talents as a rapper helped launch what would become a spectacular career in entertainment. 

He began to work with Jaz-O who became his mentor and from there worked his way up. From rap battles with LL Cool J in the 1990s to selling his CDs out of his car, Jay-Z began to make a name for himself. He, along with Damon “Dame” Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke, created their own independent label, Roc-A-Fella Records, and began putting out music. 

Jay-Z’s story is special and unique to his hometown. So, when conceiving of this exhibition, it was important to pay homage to his beginnings and the community that surrounds him in Bed-Stuy. Desiree Perez said the team wanted this showcase to be open to everyone. This need for accessibility led the team to choose a public library rather than a museum or gallery. On this, Perez said, “Jay belongs to the people…[the Brooklyn Public Library] is a place that feels comfortable. It’s not intimidating.” 

Photo Credit Gregg Richards

Installation view of "The Book of HOV" at the Brooklyn Public Library

The exhibition is right at home at the BPL, and begins from the outside in. The week prior to its opening, the Library plastered some of the rapper’s greatest lyrics to the facade of the building as a teaser for the exhibition. Inside, “The Book of HOV” spans the entire building and is organized in eight parts referencing significant chapters of Jay-Z’s life, from “A Work of Art Already” that holds archival interviews and audio from all 13 of his solo albums, to “Business, Man” that charts Jay-Z’s journey to own his own record label and master recordings, to “Did It All Without a Pen” that goes into the rapper’s songwriting abilities – all of his poetry he creates, he does so without writing it down. In each section, visitors can explore various visual, physical, and audio-based stories that tell the tale of Jay-Z, who made it from Bed Stuy to the world stage, and back again.

Photo Credit Gregg Richards

Installation view of "The Book of HOV" at the Brooklyn Public Library

“Win Win” showcases the rapper’s battle with social injustice, and on view are his awards from the NAACP and GLAAD, and various ephemera from the Shawn Carter Foundation, which supports students facing socio-economic hardships attend and get through college. In another section there is the legendary Glastonbury Festival guitar and the microphone and stand that Jay-Z used at the festival. Nearby, there is a case with Jay-Z’s notorious Brooklyn Nets jersey and blue Yankees cap. 

Section III of the exhibit is just beyond the library’s main atrium and holds the replica of Baseline Studios. It was important to the rapper to have his own space, to create the right atmosphere for song-writing and community. He found a second-floor space on West 26th Street, a friend designed the interior, and Baseline Studios opened in 2000. Baseline was open to everyone from rookies to accomplished producers to share their beats or create music together. Sometimes, if you were lucky, your music could make it onto Jay-Z’s album. The recreation of the space stands as a reminder that creating your own community for both yourself and others can inspire the best creative minds, and that it's important to surround yourself with people.

Upon entering the Brooklyn Public Library, visitors are met with a newly commissioned Daniel Arsham sculpture, “HOV’s Hands” (2023), created for the exhibition. Outstretched hands made of volcanic ash hold up a triangle with the index fingers and thumbs, symbolizing the Roc sign, a diamond shaped hand signal that represents the Roc-A-Fella and Rocawear label. It's emblematic of what is to come, both for the visitors of the exhibition who are discovering the extraordinary story of Jay-Z, but also for the man himself, to reflect on all that he has created and to see what lies ahead.

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