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In Detroit, entire skyscrapers stand abandoned. One of those, the David Whitney Building, looms like a ghost a few blocks away from downtowns Comerica Park, visible from almost anywhere within the stadium. But onstage, luminary Jay-Z sounds a rare note of optimism: I know youve been through a lot, but Detroit has heart, and it will be back.
Its anyones guess how much of the vast, whiter-than-I-expected crowd Thursday night actually lives around here. Outside the park, a guy in line tries to convince anyone who will listen that Grand Rapids is the city of the future, that itll be bigger than Detroit in 10 years. Before the show starts, the highway traffic into the city is at a complete standstill, as guys selling bootleg T-shirts wander between the cars. Once you get out of the stadium/casino sector, downtown is a grisly, apocalyptic sight. But Detroit does have at least one thing going for it: The most popular rapper in the world calls the city home.
Tonight, Eminem is in town to co-headline this massive stadium show alongside Jay, his closest peer. Theyll do it again the following night, then take the show to Yankee Stadium September 13 and 14. Its an ambitious move for two rappers, taking over the public spaces once reserved for boomer-rock dinosaurs. This isnt like Summer Jam, where the entire rap universe throws itself a stadium party. Its just two guys, along with whatever guests they bring. Looking around, Jay-Z tells guest Young Jeezy, Look how far hip-hop has come. (Oh, shit, Jeezy offers.)
But when Ems onstage, the narrative doesnt have anything to do with rap conquering stadiums. Instead, its about Em conquering his own demonsthe same story at the heart of Recovery, the turgid mess of an album that has dominated the Billboard charts all summer. Before he takes the stage, a graphic flashes onscreen, talking about how he appeared unfocused in recent years, how hes been largely absent from the stage for years, how he spent time in rehab. Goddamn it feels good to be back, he later snarls. Not here. Back. Stadiums, then, are what Em sees as his natural habitat. This park was just standing here, waiting for him to get his shit together.
To these ears, Recovery doesnt work because it trades in the gleefully anarchic streak of Ems classic early albums for a sincere but artless compulsion to overshare. He wants to tell us about his addictions, his fears, his depression after the death of best friend Proof. He gives all this to us in frantic, virtuoso sprays of syllables, alongside face-palm punchlines like the one about shaking that ass like a donkey with Parkinsons. And through those word-clumps, I dont hear that devilish grin anymore. Ems rehab process has had the same deadening effect that Buddhism once had on sneering white-rap ancestors the Beastie Boys: a chaotic rush lost to noble impulses. But Em live is a different thing. Apparently, his newfound sobriety doesnt mean he cant do Purple Pills. And thats a good thing: Purple Pills is a great song.
Theres a nice symmetry to this mini-tour, Jay and Em trading off headlining duties in each others hometowns. But the two guys dont exactly occupy the same role in their own cities. In New York, Jay is a minor deity, beaming magnanimously down from billboards, a cool uncle everyone shares. His set is an absolute marvel of total-pro showmanship, one developed through years of road-dogging across arenas and festivals. His well of hits is just absurdly deep, and he uses them for maximum impact: U Dont Know into Jigga What, Jigga Who into 99 Problems, each one a euphoric peak. These days, he ends every show by pointing out individual people in the crowd, thanking them one by one. Hes built for stadiums.
Eminem is not, and I wasnt sure how hed translate. His rap style is dense, precise, almost Tourettictoo fast to pick out every word through the cavernous echoes. Jay is a generous presence, while Em is a ball of coiled energy: hood up, rocketing around the stage, punching air. Even at his most relaxed, Jay radiates a casual glamour. But Em wears a crappy plastic digital watch and sweats through his gym-class gray T-shirt within two songs. Midway into his set, he cedes the stage to 50 Cent for a few songs, a perfect opportunity for a costume change. But he returns in that same crappy, sweat-soaked shirt, an anti-glam move that verges on actual bad personal hygiene.
About that 50 Cent cameo: He emerges in a spectacularly gaudy jacket, all covered in tiny light bulbs, with lit-up sunglasses to match. (Tony Yayo, on obligatory hypeman duties, keeps the same old bucket hat.) Their 15 minutes onstage are the best possible 15 minutes we could get: Patiently Waiting into I Get Money into In Da Club. Its a minor triumph in stagecraft, and Em keeps that same all-thrills sensibility going throughout. Alongside his hometown-hero status, that keeps him from drowning in Jays oceans of goodwill.
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