Live Review: Jay-Z & Kanye West - Watch The Throne Tour

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JAY-Z KANYE WEST

“You’re all welcome,” gloated a smiling Kanye West in the middle of The Throne’s performance Saturday night at the Izod Center. The display of arrogance was slightly laughable and maybe a bit rude (after all, much of the audience paid over $100 to see this show), but it just might have been deserved. While Jay-Z and Kanye could have easily gone through this performance – and this tour – playing half the setlist, giving half the effort, and calling it a night, they instead put on a tightly produced, awe-inspiring display of swagger, showmanship, and teamwork, sharing the spotlight in a show lasting 2 hours and fifteen minutes.

While I expected Kanye to demand attention and overpower Hova in the dual performance, he actually did a great job of stepping back and playing energetic sidekick to Jay-Z’s seasoned, polished veteran, the ringleader of the night’s circus. And it really was a circus – complete with high-wire performances from both artists, as they opened the show rapping to each other across the arena from a rising pair of parallel cubes to the booming, operatic “H.A.M.”

The setlist provided a huge chunk of material from both performers, as solo sets from Jay-Z and Kanye were woven throughout, strung together by 10 tracks from Watch The Throne. While some individual tracks were performed together (Jay-Z played hype man during “Gold Digger,” Kanye rapped the cop part of “99 Problems”), and other non-Throne collaboration tracks were performed (“Monster” and “Diamonds”), both found opportunities to command the stage solo.

"Otis"

After Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E.” morphed into “On To The Next One,” Jay-Z tore apart the throbbing track from atop his own cube, rapping basically not as a person but as a commanding shadow, above the audience as the lights pulsed to the heavy beat.

Jay-Z’s decision to rap from strictly the center of his cube reflected the role he played throughout the night – conductor. He was cool and in charge, guiding the audience when to scream during “Otis.” At one point, as he stood on the edge of the stage, guiding a crowd-wide, up-and-down bob of his trademark “diamond,” a close-up shot on the massive screens showed a ridiculously determined face with the intensity of someone performing life-or-death CPR.

If Jay-Z was the conductor, Kanye was the trombone player in the band that you can’t take your eyes off of because he’s having so much fun, and trying so damn hard. Jay-Z was more polished; Kanye was more electrifying. I got the chills after he yelled “The only thing that I pray is that my feet don’t fail me now,” and proceeded to glide across the stage, kicking his legs back and forth as strobe lights illuminated every confident stride, sway and strut.

A similar moment happened later in the show, as he sprinted from side to side of the stage during the build-up to both choruses in “Touch The Sky” – the audience went nuts the second he started to run. While Jay-Z earned cheers with words (“you already know where I’m from,” he told the hometown audience to roaring approval as he and Kanye introduced themselves), Kanye inspired with movement.


"Ni**as in Paris"

This review isn’t complete without a mention of what has now become the most famous moment of this tour – the three-peat of “N****s” in Paris” delivered just before the show’s conclusion. That’s right. “What she order, fish filet” is repeated three times, as is the entire song, consecutively. The first time ended just before the climactic beat drop, as Jay-Z demanded for more: “AGAIN.” The second time was louder, and seemed to conclude the show. And, of course, the third time was the first song back for the encore. Was it indulgent? Sure. Did the crowd love it every single time? You bet.

The show wasn’t perfect – Kanye’s dim lighting for his solo cube set worked well for the restrained “Runaway” and “Heartless,” but not for the powerful “Stronger,” when he should have been brightly illuminated. “H.A.M.” and “Who Gon Stop Me” both kicked off the show with sound problems, as it was tough to make out lyrics of any kind over the fuzzy speakers. And songs like “Lift Off,” (which they didn’t even rap to) “Empire State of Mind,” and “Made In America,” all prominently feature sing-along choruses but found the audience just singing along to recordings of Beyonce, Alicia Keys, and Frank Ocean, respectively, not providing the thrill that a live rendition would have given.

Overall, though, the show was masterfully paced and performed. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give to the two artists is this: they have the ability to command the stage with their backs alone. During both the ending of “Welcome To The Jungle” and the snippet of “What A Wonderful World” that played before “No Church in The Wild,” The Throne turned towards the giant projectors, cocked their heads back, and stared. During “Jungle,” they looked up at a cheetah mauling a gazelle; as Louis Armstrong blared over the speakers, they watched images of racism and children in the Klu Klux Klan. Both times, the duo looked transfixed, as if they were seeing these videos for the first time, even though they’ve put on this show many times before. It’s a testament to their presence as performers that my eyes darted back and forth from the screens to their stoic, hypnotized posture – the same look of amazement the audience held throughout the show.


"99 Problems"

Bonus: Download a bootleg of The Throne's entire Greensboro, NC concert here.