Saturday, November 5
Better than: New Jersey’s usual offerings.
“I hear the show is a big fucking deal! I hear you disappearing and things, running around the fucking venue, coming in from behind the people, singing those hit tunes… Dudes is wiggling their foot from here to Brook!”—Busta Rhymes to Jay-Z.
This quote could have been about the tour supporting Watch The Throne, but it’s actually referencing the Hard Knock Life Tour, which happened 12 years ago.
Watching The Throne perform on Saturday night, you wouldn’t think that Jay-Z has aged a day since then, that the reports of Kanye’s outsized ego could possibly be true. Watching The Throne perform together, it’s not too much of a stretch to think that only these two could make each other look small.
It’s not just that Jay-Z wears his buckle-back hat backwards to give the appearance of youth; he milks the cow, he imitates Kanye’s neck-break in the “Gold Digger” video. In the past few years, Kanye has proven himself to be an invigorating force for Jay: a driven little brother, a competitive teammate, a pill slowing down the effects of time. Jay, for his part, is a much-needed calming force for Kanye, a washcloth for a hothead. It’s a perfectly symbiotic relationship; each takes turns playing the bumblebee and the flower. As “Encore” closes out the night, Kanye chants “Hova! Hova! Hova!” Jay, over screams of his own name, urges, “Kanye! Kanye! Kanye!”
Their performances are a contrast in style: Kanye moves as if the ground will light up with each footstep; Jay walks like a panther, cool. But, as in any marriage, they have started to look like one another: the usually moody Kanye slapped any hand that was outstretched to him, his smile showing his teeth, which gowed in the dark. Jay loosened, a bounce in his knees, a throwback to younger days rocking throwbacks. They act as one another’s hypemen, excitable. Kanye plays out the cop in “99 Problems;” closing out “Gold Digger,” Jay pointed to a woman in the front row: “He gon’ leave your ass for that white girl.” (Kanye almost collapsed from laughter.)
Like the album, the design of the concert is more Kanye’s than Jay’s. It’s unbelievably gutsy, and artfully so. The focus is minimal—just two men on a stage, or one on a platform. For entire songs, they are completely silhouetted as lights flash around them, cutouts in blue and black. Jay, during “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” is lit by what could be a flipbook of lasers. Kanye cloaks himself in red-tinged darkness for “Runaway” and “Heartless,” his emotions laid deep in the lines of his face. For “Who Gon Stop Me,” the two separate platforms on which the rappers stand project images of great white sharks jabbing and Dobermans bristling from within.
It makes the most human moments that much larger, that much more important. As “Made in America” played, the waving cell phones looked like fireflies. Followed by the quiet of “New Day,” Jay and Kanye sat side-by-side on the stage, letting 10,000 strangers in on an intimate conversation. Jay, soon to have a baby, spoke on the importance of fathers, and then pointed into a section near the stage and said: “I see homeboy right there with his daughter. That’s some beautiful shit right there.” Kanye and Jay-Z also found power in silence: dropping their mics by their sides, they turned their backs on the audience, directing attention fully to the screens broadcasting cheetahs as they take down an antelope, or—later, more unnerving—vintage newsreels of cops running amok, of crowds building into a frenzy.
The set list is all killer, owing in part to the deep catalog the two possess. Each song’s title, set in Impact, scrolled across a large screen, on the slim chance that everyone in attendance wasn’t familiar with each track. The arrangements are dressed in all stadium-status everything: Mike Dean overlays a beefy bass on 88-Keys’ production for “No Church In The Wild” to make it more of a head-nodder than ever; the transition from “All of the Lights” into the drums and whistles of “Big Pimpin” got the loudest reaction of the night. With blue lights barely touching Kanye from below, “Stronger” has been reworked into a dark twisted basement Chemical Brothers fantasy, rumbling and enchanting. (Not everything worked: “Touch the Sky,” which should have been a no-brainer for such a big space, sounded muddled.)
The enthusiasm was as contagious as the sound enormous. Even though it wasn’t a surprise, it was still awesome to hear “Dudes in Paris” played once, then twice, and then as an encore. Each time, the song became a little more freewheeling, a lot more fun, a jambalaya of craziness. Jay and Kanye ran around the stage, circling one another, giggling, falling all over themselves. The gall they must have to play a song three times in a row; but they also have the ability to pull it off.
Critical bias: I could’ve heard “Dudes in Paris” four times.
Overheard: “I need you to remember three things: we came, we saw, we conquered.”—Jay-Z, during “Encore.”
Random notebook dump: For such natural chemistry, the banter between Jay and Kanye is cringeworthy, canned and obvious. Kanye introduces one of their songs by saying, “We’ve been all over the world, but there’s still one city we haven’t taken them to.” It’s “Dudes in Paris.” Come on. In transitioning from “Gold Digger,” Kanye asks, “What should I do, Jay?” “I dunno, Ye,” he responds. “Usually I have good advice, but… I GOT 99 PROBLEMS BUT A BITCH AIN’T ONE!” First of all, ugh. Second, that makes no sense. Same with: “What time is it, Ye?” breaking into “Good Life,” which opens with “…like we always do it this time!” No sense. Hire Aaron Sorkin or Bruce Vilanch or something.
Random notebook dump II: Spotted a couple wearing matching shirts that said “THAT SHIT CRAY.” There’s nothing less cray than that.
Who Gon Stop Me
Try a Little Tenderness / Otis
Welcome to the Jungle
Gotta Have It
Where I’m From
Jigga What, Jigga Who
Can’t Tell Me Nothing
Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Remix)
You Don’t Know
Run This Town
Power / Power (Remix)
Made in America
Hard Knock Life
H to the Izzo
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
No Church in the Wild
Dudes in Paris
Dudes in Paris
Dudes in Paris