Last night the traveling road show/exercise in megalomania/last gasp of arena-concert relevance that is the Watch the Throne tour rolled into Kanye West’s hometown. Could the two most famous rappers alive justify the hype?
The Dilemma watched the throne, and reports on it after the break.
Who the Crowd Belonged To: This is Ye’s hometown, and this was his crowd. He received the longest and loudest cheers of the night. Chicagoans clearly love Jay-Z, but they fucking LOVE Kanye. And for his part, Jay-Z seemed happy to cede the spotlight on Kanye’s home turf. In “Gotta Have It,” when Kanye proclaimed “I remain Chi-town,” the resulting ovation was so thunderous that Jay-Z didn’t even bother chiming in with “Brooklyn ’til I die.”
Number of Kanye Costume Changes: Distressingly few. Happily, though, he made what he did wear count: a leather skirt, leather leggings and leather boots. The lower half of his body was sartorially magnificent.
I could be wrong, but I think one of the leather skirts he wore had fringe on it, which reminded me of the crucial suede jacket from Can’t Buy Me Love.
The Watch the Throne tour was reportedly delayed because of a disagreement about stage presentation: Jay-Z wanted a simple show with minimal production values — just two guys on stage rapping. Kanye wanted to pull out the stops and have fancy light shows, videos and special effects. Who won the argument? Mostly Jay-Z. The show opened with the two titans on platforms situated at opposite ends of the arenas — one in front of the stage, the other behind the soundboard. As “H.A.M.” started, the platforms began to rise, so Jay-Z and Kanye towered 20 feet over the crowd, and hundreds of feet apart from each other. For the bulk of the show, though, it was just two dudes on a stark, black stage. There were obligatory but basic giant video screens, but not much in the way of fancy effect. Just the occasional flames shooting up from the stage. And some lasers.
What the Crowd Was Like: Depends on where you were. In the 100 level, where tickets averaged upwards of $200, there were a whole lot of bros excited to have permission to shout the n-word, and older North Shore d-bags in North Face fleeces who looked like they were expecting a Michael Bublé show to break out. Up in the 300s, where a number of $30 tickets had sold out immediately, the crowd was younger, more diverse and more enthusiastic.
#kanyebrag: “For what it’s worth, this song was just nominated for Song of the Year.”
Fun, Stabby Tweak to “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”: “Fuck it, I’m guilty, y’all got to feel me”
Songs That Got the Biggest Reaction:
1) “Niggas in Paris”
2) “Big Pimpin'”
3) “Good Life”
Enough Fucking Around. How Was the Show? Pretty fucking awesome. They played for 2 hours and 45 minutes straight through, covered almost all of Watch the Throne, and a vast number of solo hits. Watching the show was a lesson and a reminder of how massive both of these artists have been for the past decade-plus. Every song they played seemed like a huge hit, and they played something like 38 songs. Both men obviously have charisma to spare, are strong live performers, and benefitted from the decision to eschew the frills and accoutrements that typically come with massive live hip hop shows. There were no distractions, which let the crowd focus on how good the songs were.
Most Pleasant Surprise: The absence of guest stars. I came waiting for various sycophants to appear on stage for a guest verse or two, and cringing at the idea of Lupe Fiasco coming out to do “Kick, Push” or something, but nada. Just Jay-Z, Kanye and a DJ and keyboard player hidden in the shadows. While it might have been nice to see Pusha T, it was a good call going guest-free.
How the Show Ended: With Jay and ‘Ye playing Niggas in Paris eight straight times.
Oh, Cool. How was the….Wait, What?? Yup. After a killer sequence of “Big Pimpin,” “Gold Digger,” “99 Problems,” and “No Church in the Wild,” the boys closed the set by playing “Niggas in Paris” twice in a row with no break as the crowd went, well, gorillas. After a five-minute faux encore break, they came back out and played it another six times in a row. It went from fun to funny to surreal to uncomfortable all the way around to awesome.
Was “Runaway” a Showstopper? “Runaway” was a fucking showstopper.
Let’s Talk About the Jay-Z/Kanye Duality For a Sec: The relationship between Kanye and Jay-Z is a source of endless fascination, and the contrast between the two provides endless fodder for pop culture junkies like us. The two were all smiles and compliments at the United Center (and no doubt on every date of this tour) — Jay-Z referred to Kanye as a genius when introducing “Izzo,” while Kanye talked repeatedly about idolizing Jay-Z while growing up on 95th Street. They seemed to enjoy each other’s company on stage. But we know it hasn’t always been smooth sailing with these two. Kanye once released a song about the deteriorating state of their relationship:
Who knows if they would still be tight if there wasn’t so much money to be made from a joint album and tour? But their friendship, or lack thereof, will never cease to be intriguing. I couldn’t help but notice last night that in profile, Kanye bears a passing resemblance to Avon Barksdale.
He and Jay-Z definitely have an element of the Barksdale/Stringer Bell relationship to them. Jay-Z is Stringer — “I’m a business, man” — cool-headed and smarter than everyone else. Kanye is Avon, hot-blooded and letting his emotions rule the day. They’re both good live performers but for entirely different reasons. Jay-Z is suave and commands attention with stillness. He’s also just a great fucking rapper. Kanye is less talented on the mic, but makes up for it with constant motion: dancing, running, mouthing along to Jay’s verses. Jay-Z is willing to break a mild sweat for us. Kanye will bleed out all over the stage for us. Jay-Z knows what he’s great at and sticks to it. Kanye takes chances and tries to achieve transcendence. Dude wore a leather skirt, for Christ’s sake!
Even though Jay-Z wears a Yankees hat, I like and respect Kanye more. Jay-Z has his shit together. Kanye’s a mess. That appeals to me more.
How Does the Richie/Fonz Dichotomy Apply to Kanye and Jay-Z? I’m not ready to talk about the Richie/Fonz Dichotomy yet.
What this Tour Means for Arena Rock: It means arena rock has a chance to survive, at least in the sense of hip hop being part of the broader spectrum of “rock music.” As the so-called great rock bands have died, retired, broken up or become creatively irrelevant, the number of artists who could fill an arena or stadium has shrunk. How many acts out there would you pay to see in 16,000-seat building. Springsteen. U2. Pearl Jam. Is anyone else left? Now there is, thanks to Kanye and Jay-Z. And even though arena shows have a bad name, there is a place for them. There is something to be said for songs that can reach the rafters and get thousands of people to pump their fists in unison.
Check out the full setlist at Consequence of Sound.