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all words: Josh Phelps
all photos: Franz Mahr

“Have fun listening to a couple plutocrats rapping about how rich they are.”  This was a friend’s response when I described how amped I was to get a last second ticket for coverage of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne tour, the theatrical embodiment of an album that runneth over with pretension and excess. Givenchy cover art, anyone? If protesters could occupy this album, they would.

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Upon the album’s release, many critics pounced immediately upon Jay and ‘Ye potentially being out of touch with their fans as the global economy rips apart like $300,000 Maybachs in the Otis video.  Thing is, salvos like these are off the mark when much of hip-hop has been rooted in braggadocio and over-the-top materialism for 30+ years. Sure, the stakes have changed when we’re reveling in Picassos instead of Pumas but the premise remains: there is always going to be a lot of terrible shit going down around us, whether Harlem in 1980 or the world in 2011, and we all need a little escapism at night before returning to the problems of our days.  Why not celebrate with two hip-hop legends who overcame the long odds that are stacked against us all?

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Around 9PM, just as the Verizon Center seemed packed to the gills, the lights dimmed and the twinkling synths of HAM drowned in the roar of the crowd heavily anticipating the thunderous 808 beats from Lex Luger’s nightmarish track.   Two ridiculously enormous cubes rose at the stage and center of the crowd with Kanye and Jay on top, respectively, and they just went IN while the cubes displayed 30 foot footage of snarling Rottweilers.  These gave way to images of great whites swimming furiously, definitely one of the most surreal moments of the night as Kanye bounced about “kicking niggas out like Pam” atop a 30 foot glowing, azure, shark tank.  If you’re going to get me to drink the kool-aid early at a show, this is how to do it.

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This commenced a run of 30+ songs in a set heavy on Watch the Throne and nearly every song you’d want to here by these two. Otis was a highlight as Jay and ‘Ye’s silhouettes stood motionless against a 100 foot American flag, Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness playing out, before the two rushed the front of the stage, trading verses and smiling with the crowd wildin’ out.  Jay was the first to do a solo run, beginning with the stark Where I’m From and segueing to a pandemonium inducing call and response of Nigga What, Nigga Who.  Jay wrapped the crowd around his pinky as he spit his bars and split the 15,000 people in half for the chorus, pacing back and forth pointing his mike to each side as the masses battled.

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Kanye’s solo turn began with Can’t Tell Me Nothin’ as ‘Ye emerged on stage bathed in lasers and draped in a leather kilt. It can’t be understated how many damn lasers were on display that night, and both rappers had their punchlines punctuated by bursts of flames from the back of the stage.  This was not your typical two turntables and a mic show but you had to expect as much from perhaps the only two rappers outside of Lil Wayne who could fill an arena. The crowd was extremely receptive to ‘Ye, singing along to every song but there was definitely a palpable difference in the two’s stage presence.  Yeezy was much more energetic, more hungry for the crowd’s approval while Jay-Z just made everything seem easy.

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Not to be mistaken for nonchalance or disinterest, it’s just the difference in experience of someone who’s crafted several hip-hop classics and comfortable in his own skin.  He showed up in a basic everyman uniform of black jeans, a t shirt, a Yankee fitted, and tore the place apart.  I imagined him stepping off the Bolt bus and metroing there to put in work and Kanye flying in on a private jet getting the final stitching on his kilt done.

The excitement ramped up when the two shared the stage, one rapping and the other playing hype man even if they didn’t have a verse. The opening piano lines of PSA gave way to a sea of Roc diamonds in the air as the lights bathed the crowd.  Jay and ‘Ye were obviously pleased with themselves during this one, then upped the energy again on the Rihanna assisted Run This Town and Kanye’s GOOD Music ensemble piece, Monster.

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There were several tender moments sprinkled through the massive set as well, including New Day where the two trade rhymes dedicated to their unborn children which is an imminent reality for Jay.  The two sat down on the stage together for the song and a feel that was more park bench than multi-million dollar setup.  “Who takes care of their kids?  That’s the cool shit,” Kanye lectured before the whole crowd started bouncing to Jay’s Hard Knock Life, Izzo, and Empire State of Mind.

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Kanye got the throne solo again after this and made use of the entirely underutilized video cubes. They could have rapped on those all damn night and it would have been awesome.  He rose in the center of the crowd with the massive screens glowing red, with sparse piano signaling the excellent Runaway from ‘Ye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.  A song about being an asshole by one of hip-hop and pop culture in general’s top assholes, it captures an emotionally exposed Kanye in a brutal declaration of caveat emptor.  It’s self-immolations like these that keep people coming back or at least interested in what Kanye has to say, douchey or not.  As the song played out, the scene got super emo with Kanye’s declaration: “Y’all all gonna fight, y’all all gonna argue, people are gonna talk shit.  People are gonna be in your business like they is mine.  But if you love someone tonight, hold them tight.  And if I told you I don’t like your hair or shoes tonight, don’t listen – I’m an asshole!”  I guess honesty is the best policy.

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We were still only about two thirds of the way through and the bangers kept rolling through: Stronger, On to the Next One, Dirt Off Your Shoulder, Big Pimpin’, Touch the Sky, an amazing All of the Lights…

They trotted out Niggas In Paris not once, not twice, but THREE TIMES. This might sound ridiculous, and maybe it is, but it was hilarious and the crowd could not get enough.  The song in itself, lifting Will Ferrell lines from Blades of Glory, is a send up itself of ashy to tacky ballin’ exploits in Paris and bathroom stalls.  Just a glorious IDGAF with Jay-Z dropping clever lines about the hapless Nets.  Jay bantered much less than Kanye but, visibly exhausted after the third go-round, confessed “Yall motherfuckers tryin to kill us!”

Leaving the stage for a few seconds before returning, you really couldn’t end the show any differently than with Jay-Z’s classic Encore, a Kanye West production from 2003’s The Black Album. This record and Kanye’s The College Dropout battled for rap supremacy that year, and one could argue that no one had entered the game with a stronger debut since Jay’s own Reasonable Doubt seven years earlier.  With their most recent, strong collaboration on WTT, it seems like Jay-Z is ready to at least share billing and pay lip-service to the skills of his younger protégé and offer a seat at the table of rap royalty.  However, the crowd was chanting “HO-VA” and not Yeezy as the lasers powered down, the flames burned out, and we all figured Jay isn’t really sharing the throne.  Yet.

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