In Detroit, entire skyscrapers stand abandoned. One of those, the David Whitney Building, looms like a ghost a few blocks away from downtown’s Comerica Park, visible from almost anywhere within the stadium. But onstage, luminary Jay-Z sounds a rare note of optimism: “I know you’ve been through a lot, but Detroit has heart, and it will be back.”
It’s anyone’s 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 it’ll 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. They’ll do it again the following night, then take the show to Yankee Stadium September 13 and 14. It’s an ambitious move for two rappers, taking over the public spaces once reserved for boomer-rock dinosaurs. This isn’t like Summer Jam, where the entire rap universe throws itself a stadium party. It’s 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 Em’s onstage, the narrative doesn’t have anything to do with rap conquering stadiums. Instead, it’s about Em conquering his own demons—the 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 he’s 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 doesn’t work because it trades in the gleefully anarchic streak of Em’s 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 Parkinson’s. And through those word-clumps, I don’t hear that devilish grin anymore. Em’s 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 doesn’t mean he can’t do “Purple Pills.” And that’s a good thing: “Purple Pills” is a great song.
There’s a nice symmetry to this mini-tour, Jay and Em trading off headlining duties in each other’s hometowns. But the two guys don’t 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 Don’t 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. He’s built for stadiums.
Eminem is not, and I wasn’t sure how he’d translate. His rap style is dense, precise, almost Tourettic—too 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.” It’s 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 Jay’s oceans of goodwill.
Em might’ve been away from the stage for a minute, but he still knows how to keep a show moving. During a D12 mini-set, the boy-band parody at the end of “My Band” gives us the first ironic display of fireworks I’ve ever seen. The show moves fluidly from crack-ups to ballads to anthems, leaving room for superstar guests: Drake emerges to general chaos for “Forever.” And when the night ends with “Lose Yourself,” the stadium barely feels big enough to contain the song.
And then there’s the one brilliantly shocking moment. Em starts “My Name Is,” but the song stops dead at the first mention of Dr. Dre’s name. Em starts screaming: “Oh, no! Oh, shit!” Dre’s name flashes huge on the screen behind him, the intro to “The Next Episode” plays, and Em’s now-reclusive mentor enters via elevator, getting the biggest disbelieving crowd-roar I’ve ever heard. Dr. Dre is only onstage for a few minutes, doing a couple of songs and looking like he can’t wait to leave. As he tries to depart, Em forces him to stand there while the crowd chants “Detox” at him. “I’m coming,” says Dre, unconvincingly. It’s a shaky, uncomfortable appearance, but a great moment nonetheless. (For his part, Jay holds himself to one guest, Jeezy, but he’ll presumably host a ton more when the show comes to Yankee Stadium.)
Eminem isn’t an ambassador for his city the way Jay is. Jay has “Empire State of Mind,” a song that’ll make him synonymous with his hometown forever. The closest thing Em has is “Welcome to Detroit City,” a song he produced for terrifying Detroit D-lister Trick Trick, less a song about how Detroit is a great place and more a song about how you’ll fucking die if you fuck with Trick Trick in Detroit. But at home in his destroyed city, performing in front of a bandstand made out of crushed cars, Em feels like a symbol for, well, recovery. He’s a destroyed man who put himself back together. Even if his music doesn’t have the kick it once did, that rebuilding means something in a once-great city that tore itself apart years ago. When Em brings this show to New York, that story might not mean as much. But it’ll still be a great show.
Jay-Z and Eminem play Yankee Stadium September 13 and 14