Watch the Throne: Gig Review
As two podiums rise above the standing audience in darkness, the sonic tremors of “H.A.M” start up on the speakers, flickers of accompanying laser-light above our heads. Kanye West emerges in a swath of blue light, pouncing on the beat like a predator, spitting his verse in a leather Givenchy t-shirt and gold chains around his neck that might as well have “I’m a big deal” diamond-encrusted on them. Flashy, defiant, exuberant: Kanye is just as I imagined him to be as a performer – if not a little zanier, as he bolts across the stage to deliver his words with boundless enthusiasm. When it’s his turn, Jay-Z’s stage lights up and so does the song all over again, as he breaks into it – ‘Fuck y’all mad at me for? You don’t even know what I’ve been through’ – with a different energy to Kanye; still intense, yet with an off-hand ease that tells he’s been doing this for years. He’s nowhere near done, though; as he announces later in “Otis”, ‘I guess I got my swagger back’. “H.A.M”, an appropriate ‘we’ve arrived’ opener for a show all about showing off, is perfect proof of that fact. Boasting and exuding what Jay-Z claims to have just gotten back, “H.A.M” is offensively expensive sounding, as though coated in the liquid gold of the Riccardo Tisci-designed Watch the Throne cover. The sheer magnitude of Jay-Z and Kanye’s collective stage presence is inimitable, their impact unassailable: we are in the presence of musical greatness.
Off to an arrogant start, this theme was continued with a tour de force of prolific, self-affirmative songs from Watch the Throne, performed with the gusto befitting its epic, film-worthy sound. (Incidentally, “No Church in the Wild” is used on both Safe House and The Great Gatsby trailers, while the rest of the album’s track list reads much like a soundtrack to an American gangster movie.) Indeed, the drama inherent to the music of Watch the Throne was certainly translated to the stage – if not heightened in the process. From excessive strobe lights to pyrotechnics, the show was as much a production as it was a performance. True to his word on Rihanna’s “Talk That Talk”, ‘everything [Jay-Z] do[es] is big’. And, as Jay-Z and Kanye push their repertoire to its absolute with their combined energy and vigour, this is evidently one of those big things. Their songs are beefier, too; “That’s My Bitch” was more inquisitive and authoritative live (‘I mean Marilyn Monroe, she’s quite nice but why are all the pretty icons always all white?’); “Welcome to the Jungle” sounded resplendent, majestic; and “Who Gon’ Stop Me”, with a grittier bass and hectic lighting, was given a new weight and power. Not to dispute the magnificence of Watch the Throne as a record (it is without doubt one of 2011’s finest), but hearing its material live, in the flesh, convinces me that it was created namely for this purpose.
It’s not enough to recognise and respond to the greatness that is Watch the Throne, though. Just as Kanye told Taylor Swift, he likes to tell us. Bringing us in on the first of many of what he calls ‘Kanye moments’, he says that someone on the radio the night before called Watch the Throne ‘the best rap show ever’. Spitting at the word ‘rap’, as though to say ‘that’s not all I do’ – and it isn’t: Kanye has a great singing voice, especially when he does “Runaway” later – he went on to say later, ‘I don’t care what you say… [here, he listed a lot of genres] – this is the BEST SHOW EVER!’ Greatness doesn’t appear to be enough for Kanye; he needs to know he’s greater. In many ways, this idea translates more widely to hip-hop, an industry arguably founded upon a culture of competition where it’s not just about who you are, but who you are better than. For Jay-Z and Kanye, competition is the fuel for their music. It’s what makes “Gotta Have It” take off live, in which Kanye and Jay-Z almost jumped over each other with their verses so that where Jay-Z came in with ‘wassup-wassup-wassup-wassup ma’fucker, where my money at?’, it was a kind of mini-victory for him; it sounded bigger than Kanye’s ‘hello-hello-hello-hello white America’ at the start. Though, of course, it’s all rehearsed, watching in the audience is like bearing witness to two great artists in the midst of their creative process; a good, productive kind of competitive.
Even in their solo sets, Jay-Z and Kanye maintained a friendly rivalry that in turn kept them bouncing off each other, in a kind of conversation through music. Sometimes they worked together to prop up the other – as in “Gold Digger”, for example, where Jay-Z threw his own into the mix and then on “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)”, where it was Kanye’s turn to put his two cents in – while other times saw them battle it out. A great example of the latter came in the form of a song-off, in which Kanye and Jay-Z divided their solo songs in meaningful ways. After “Big Pimpin’”, Kanye humbly recalled watching its music video when he was younger, wishing he could be like that some day. He then said, getting back into character to set up his next song, that there was a problem with that fame – then of course “Gold Digger” comes on, and the crowd gets a little crazier. Immediately after “Gold Digger”, it’s the perfect opportunity for Jay-Z to cut in with “99 Problems” – and, the audience scream, ‘the bitch ain’t one!’ Hearing these songs made years apart, in the context of each other showed the depth and flair of Kanye West and Jay-Z as respective performers in charting their growth as artists and the journeys on which their music has taken them; paths that have led them, for good reason, to work together many times. Jay-Z and Kanye may have proven their worth artistically with Watch the Throne, as cutting-edge, inventive performers, communicating with each other to communicate with us.
As well as showcasing their many talents as respective performers, the solo performances were also a great opportunity for each to share a little more with the audience about themselves. For Jay-Z, a New Yorker as proud and impressive as the Chrysler building, that opportunity came with “Empire State of Mind”. With a mandatory snatch of “New York, New York” playing, once Frank Sinatra sings the final, resonating ‘New Yooooork’, a homesick Jay says, ‘Can I take y’all to my home?’ – and then the music dips gloriously into the plucky beat of “Empire State of Mind” and before you know it, Jay-Z is calling himself ‘the new Sinatra, and since I made it here, I can make it anywhere, yeah they love me everywhere’. But the real highpoints of Jay-Z’s performance included “Big Pimpin’”, “99 Problems”, “Dirt off my Shoulder” and, from the more recent Blueprint 3, “On to the Next One” which reeled, like everything else, off Jay-Z’s tongue in no time, effortless. In spite of his speediness, however, when Jay-Z raps, it’s as though there’s all the time in the world; like a king who takes no order from anyone, Jay-Z naturally occupies the space he’s stood in, the song he’s performing and the audience obeying him. It would have been good to hear more from Jay-Z and from Blueprint 3, in addition to “Empire” and “On to the Next One” – but, of course, though it may feel otherwise, there’s only so much time.
While Jay-Z performed much of his earlier material, the night was undoubtedly Kanye’s and therefore flashier; more modern and high fashion, less classic hip-hop and baseball caps. Kanye’s repertoire comprised many of his best songs: from his last and most accomplished album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye performed “Runaway”, “Power”, “All of the Lights” and “Monster”; “Heartless” and “Stronger” from 808s and Heartbreak; and a trustworthy trinity of hits – “Flashing Lights”, “Good Life” and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” – from Graduation. Kanye’s highlight was “Runaway” followed by “Heartless”, performed one after the other and delivered with conviction, passion and grace. Exposed to us, in a harsh red light, at the close of “Runaway”, Kanye ad-libbed, ‘If you love someone, hold on to them tight’, as the piano played on, improvising around him. Lost in the music here, Kanye was no longer playing to perform but rather just performing naturally. From the fade of the piano, Kanye relished picking up with the music to begin “Heartless”, his energy never wavering, only accumulating all over again. At turns tormented, candid and tender, Kanye’s performance seemed to open him up to us; first, the jaded lover, then the hater. Playing both parts, Kanye’s unfailing energy, as he dashes across the stage like the music makes him do that, makes him incredibly watchable. The epitome of sentimental, he throws himself into each role; getting visibly drunk on performing, he never grows tired: he just gets higher. As Sasha Frere-Jones wrote in his review of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy for The New Yorker, ‘What makes West more energizing than annoying is his relentless enthusiasm.’ This becomes ever more apparent watching him throw his heart and body into the music – and hearing him rave about it after. He is so much, but never too much.
“New Day” saw him come down, though – and stay down, with Jay-Z, for a moment. Looking out into the audience, up to the sky and occasionally across at each other, Kanye and Jay-Z departed from the swank and glamour they started with, coming down to earth to consider the future; the lessons they would pass down to an imagined son, and what their shoulds and shouldn’ts should be to this hypothetical heir to the throne. Sitting side by side, though they don’t look like father and son, there’s a large enough age difference between them to make the case for a fatherly influence on Jay-Z’s part; arguably, Jay-Z is a kind of musical father to Kanye – is it too much to suggest that Jay-Z signing Kanye is a kind of signifier for the birth of his career? Either way, “New Day” was evidently an emotional performance for both. Kanye’s advice reads like a list of lessons learned from his own life: ‘I’ll never let my son have an ego… And I’ll never let him leave his college girlfriend,/And get caught up with the groupies in the whirlwind… See, I just want him to have an easy life,/Not like Yeezy life’. Whereas, the recently new father, Jay-Z ‘promise[s] to never leave him even if his mama tweakin’,/’cause my dad left me and I promise never repeat him, never repeat him, never repeat him’ – but he does repeat himself, in vowing that very promise.
A similar moment of vulnerability came with an interlude slideshow showing photos of the Ku Klux Klan and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, to which Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” provided an ironic soundtrack. The slideshow, which took its cue appropriately after “99 Problems”, moved some in the audience to tears. Amid the gritty glamour of Jay-Z and Kanye’s money-sounding music, the slideshow stood as a clever piece of political performance art, with which Jay-Z and Kanye appeared to gesture toward their own powerlessness, as though to say, ‘yes, we have power – but still not enough to change the world.’ In the context of these images, Jay-Z and Kanye’s music and words thrash against them; an expressionism that dismantles the ideas of America suspended with the nation’s flag for their performance of “Otis”, as swiftly as it is taken down at the end. While the artists’ alludes to Otis Redding (‘sounds so soulful, don’t you agree?’) and Louis Armstrong nod to the kings of music before them, the real king before them is Michael Jackson, acknowledged several times throughout by both Jay-Z and Kanye West – and whose former throne, Kanye says at the beginning, they’re now watching.
The final Watch the Throne show closed with six performances of “Ni**as in Paris”, which Jay-Z and Kanye stopped each time just before the Blades of Glory reference – provocative, indeed. They would then start all over again, back to the beginning of the song, after over two and a half hours of non-stop performing, cultivating a frantic energy among the audience and between themselves that I have never seen or been a part of before. Kanye says it’s the best show ever. Is it? I don’t know, I haven’t seen all the shows to tell you. But I can tell you that watching Jay-Z and Kanye West was an experience unlike any other, and that makes it to date the greatest I’ve been to. As collaborators on Watch the Throne, two of the best in music – Jay-Z and Kanye West – have come together to guarantee it, by showing it, to the world. As respective artists, each in their own right is a superhero with great, but different, powers. Together, powers combined, they are unstoppable.