Jay-Z and Kanye West
Watch the Throne Tour
American Airlines Arena
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Better Than: A motherfuckin' rap opera at Versailles, teleported to outer space.
At this point, though, after a decade and a half of non-stop striving, aspiring, and mythologizing, Jay and Ye rule hip-hop. They're rap royalty with billions in the bank and a fat catalog studded with massive 1000-carat tracks.
So what are a couple of conquerors like His Hovatastic Majesty and King Kanye to do when there's no conquerin' left to be done? Nothing, except Watch the Throne.
As leaders of the rap royal family, Jay and Ye are so rich and powerful that they can basically do whatever the fuck they want. Yeah, there's the risk of revolution, backlash, overthrow. But all they've gotta do is hire the best producers, video directors, and hypemen to help protect the kingdom.
That's exactly what Hova and Yeezy did for their new-ish album. And it's also the strategy for their current tag-team tour, a megaconcert superspectacle that's almost too big for the average American arena with its insane 44-song setlist, dual-stage setup, and generally random collection of crazy-expensive theatrical tricks, including spacey lasers shows, hellishly fiery pyrotechnics, and levitating, house-sized LED platforms.
The show began at precisely 9:10 p.m. when the American Airlines Arena's house lights went black, a snippet of opera boomed from the speaker stacks dangling from the ceiling, and every single beholder of the Throne started snapping photos, setting off a stroboscopic frenzy of camera phone flash.
A minute later, Jay and Ye emerged from the darkness, each perched atop his own enormous black platform. And facing one another from opposite ends of the arena, separated only by a moat of fans freaking the fuck out, they ripped into "H.A.M." as those platforms slowly rose above the crowd, eventually becoming giant 25-foot-tall jumbotron cubes broadcasting looped video footage of snarling, barking Dobermans.
After the next track, "Who Gon Stop Me," a mini-montage of great white sharks prowling the bright blue depths for prey, and plenty of laser action, Jay-Z took some unseen (and presumably underground) path to the larger stage. The DJ killed time with an extended sample of Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness." A stylishly distressed American flag unfurled from the rafters. And then the stage burped fireballs as Jay finally joined Kanye for a quick series of Watch the Throne tracks -- "Otis," "Welcome to the Jungle," and "Gotta Have It."
The masses lost their minds, throwing hands and diamond signs toward the sky. Dressed in Yankees snapback cap, black tee, black pants, black boots, and a star-spangled handkerchief hanging out of his back pocket, Hova waved back at his people while Kanye (rockin' a weird getup -- comically oversized black t-shirt, pleated black leather skirt, leather skinny jeans, and designer sneakers) tossed out a double-fisted salute.
At that point, this epic extravaganza entered its main stretch, a retrospective 32-song marathon with Jay-Z and Kanye trading off short two- and three-track solo sets of their own material, from Hova's massive cache of killer records (especially In My Lifetime Volumes I to III, the Blueprint trilogy, and The Black Album) to all five of Yeezy's emo-rap opuses: College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation, 808s and Heartbreak, and last year's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Jay held court first, tossing off raw, stripped-down takes of "Where I'm From" and "Nigga What, Nigga Who (Originator 99)" before handing the scepter over to Ye for a laser-soaked sprint through "Can't Tell Me Nothing," "Flashing Lights," and "Jesus Walks," which climaxed with King Kanye on his knees at center stage, fistpumping toward the heavens.
They doubled up on "Diamonds Are Forever" as Hova reminded us that "I'm not a businessman/I'm a business, man." Then Jay-Z knocked out "Public Service Announcement," followed immediately by "U Don't Know." And Kanye returned to duet on "Run This Town" before charging through two Dark Twisted tracks, "Power" and "Monster."
By 10:11 p.m., Jay and Ye's superspectacle was barely half finished. And this elaborate back-and-forth was repeated again and again as the rappers rotated stage duties, cycling through another dozen songs, a couple of wardrobe changes, and several theatrical set pieces. It was meticulously planned, smoothly orchestrated, and obviously rehearsed to the most infinitesimal detail.
Overall, this totally micromanaged, militarily controlled approach to putting on a superspectacle gave the show a certain kind of mesmerizing momentum. The pace of the proceedings was rapid. There were no awkward stalls in the action. And Kanye never descended into one of his trademark rants about sound quality or audience enthusiasm.
Sometimes, though, the script became a little too sterile. And luckily, there were a couple of odd occurrences that added an element of unpredictability to Watching the Throne.
Example: During "Run This Town," some 30-something dude in a purple button-up who was seated several rows from the edge of the stage pulled out a bundle of (fake?) bills and made it rain, hurling his cash toward Jay-Z and Kanye. The money fluttered to the rappers' feet and they played along, throwing it back into the crowd.
Meanwhile, security seized upon the cash man as he begged for leniency. But away from that central dispute, a skirmish broke out between a few female audience members, one of which may have been the money-thrower's girlfriend. And it all got wild enough to attract Jay-Z's attention, who tried to quell the catfight and call off the security goons, saying, "Y'all let those people enjoy the show. They paid for their ticket. Let them rock."
His Hovatastic Majesty had spoken. But as soon as he shifted back to entertaining the masses, security finished the job and dragged the cash man out of his seat.
Another amusing example of the unplanned: Just moments after Kanye strutted around triumphantly atop his red, glowing LED platform, doling out tidbits of romantic advice ("Ladies, stop checkin' emails ... God invented emails so niggas can get away with shit") and introducing his heavily Auto-Tuned hit "Runaway" ("Love don't last forever, so if you love someone tonight, hold on real tight"), Yeezy's wireless mike began to die in the middle of the song, crackling and croaking like an overemotional robot having a breakdown and trying to cry.
With a twinge of panic in his machine-processed voice, Ye called for another microphone. But he was 25 feet in the air. So ... What? Who? How? Apparently, though, the King's minions had planned for exactly this kind of minor emergency. And a roadie came to the rescue, handing the rapper a fresh mike with a completely ridiculous looking 30-foot-long grip arm.
However, those type of unscripted moments were just funny asides from the main event -- a glossy, somewhat schizophrenic show packed with everyone's favorite tracks that never scrimped on paying back the $250 cost of a ticket.
Sure, there were corny moments like His Majesty and King Kanye's segue dialogue between "Big Pimpin'," "Gold Digger," and "99 Problems":
Kanye: "I watched that video back in the day, all that 'Big Pimpin'' stuff. And I looked up to you, Jay. I said, 'When I get my money, I'm gonna try all that 'Big Pimpin'' stuff. But then you know what happened?"
Jay-Z: "What, Ye?"
Cue "Gold Digger" -- "She take my money!"
Jay-Z: "That's fucked up, man. She shouldn't be doin' that. All I gotta say is ..."
Cue "99 Problems" -- "If you're havin' girl problems, I feel bad for you, son/I got 99 problems, but a bitch ain't one."
And then there were ostensibly spontaneous sequences, like Hova and Yeezy's supposedly rapturous stab at "Niggas in Paris," which they performed twice in a row, closing the show before reemerging for an encore of, uh, "Niggas in Paris," "Niggas in Paris," and "Niggas in Paris." It was alternately thrilling, numbingly repetitive, and kind of hypnotic.
So ultimately, while the experience was sometimes sterile, often absurd, and frequently scattered, a night with Jay, Ye, and the Throne still turned out to be a stylish, superexpensive, and perfectly calibrated celebration of excess.
Exactly the kind of schtick befitting a couple of Kings.
The Crowd: Celbs and norms, chicks in sequined cocktail dresses, homeboys in dirty t-shirts, avid Forbes readers in expensive dark blue business suits, locked-out NBA players like LeBron, D-Wade, and Amar'e Stoudemire -- plus, according to Jay-Z's personal shootout, Will "The Fresh Prince" Smith.
Jay-Z and Kanye's Setlist
-"Who Gon Stop Me"
-"Try a Little Tenderness" (Otis Redding interlude)
-"Welcome to the Jungle"
-"Gotta Have It"
-"Where I'm From"
-"Nigga What, Nigga Who (Originator 99)"
-"Can't Tell Me Nothing"
-"Diamonds Are Forever"
-"Public Service Announcement"
-"U Don't Know"
-"Run This Town"
-"Made in America"
-"Hard Knock Life"
-"Empire State of Mind"
-"On to the Next One"
-"Dirt Off Your Shoulder"
-"I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)"
-"That's My Bitch"
-"Touch the Sky"
-"All of the Lights"
-"What a Wonderful World" (Louis Armstrong interlude)
-"No Church in the Wild"
-"Niggas in Paris" (Once)
-"Niggas in Paris" (Twice)
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-"Niggas in Paris" (Thrice)
-"Niggas in Paris" (Four fucking times)
-"Niggas in Paris" (And yeah, a fifth and final take)