Rappers Jay-Z and Kanye West have notoriously big egos. Now they have a stage show to match.
The pair’s Watch the Throne tour sets a new standard for live hip hop and arena gigs: you’re unlikely to see anything this year as exciting and physically direct.
Anyone who doubts that hip hop is one of America’s great cultural exports should see the Watch the Throne live. The European leg of the tour has started with five dates at London’s O2 Arena. The rappers will be playing there tonight and tomorrow; more European concerts follow.
It’s a big-budget show. A battery of lasers that would make a Death Star commander proud and repeated balls of fire warm the sun-starved London audience. The rapping is hotter.
Jay-Z and West start by swapping rhymes from opposite sides of the arena. Each is atop a giant cube, the sides of which show footage of snarling dogs and circling sharks.
Jay-Z’s rhymes are a thicket of words, ripe with razor-sharp barbs. West is lighter, his awkward honesty adding moments of unexpected electro-pop tenderness. The combination, and the interplay between them, is electric.
Unlike most hip-hop shows, there are no tedious interludes. Unlike most arena events, there are no dancers, props or high-concept staging just in case the crowd gets bored.
Instead, there are just two guys, their beats (apparently triggered by three anonymous keyboard players) and a non-stop torrent of rhymes. Sometimes the giant screens show spectacular footage of various big cats. Mostly they display close-ups of West and Jay-Z rapping.
The set is a two-hour blast of hits from both rapper’s catalogs as well as much of “Watch the Throne,” the pair’s recent collaborative album.
“Who Gon Stop Me” peacocks their achievements and “Otis,” performed in front of a giant Stars and Stripes, glows with soulful pride.
West, dressed in a black shirt, leather pants and what looks like a black leather skirt, throws in some dance-pop with “Stronger” and revels in the Shirley Bassey sample of “Diamonds From Sierra Leone.” Jay-Z wears nondescript black sportswear, shades and a baseball-cap and keeps the rhymes tight through classics like “U Don’t Know” and “99 Problems.”
Both prowl through West’s ludicrous “Monster.” Just as the beats and braggadocio threaten to overwhelm, the pair sit center-stage for an intimate rendition of “New Day,” dedicated to “all the fathers in the house.”
A central component of hip hop is the battle in which rappers compete to show off their skills and put down their rivals. Where the boasts bristle with machismo, the insults inevitably will be scurrilous and puerile. Hip hop’s favorite compound oedipal profanity is always going to sound far better than “nincompoop.”
The lyrics reference Rothko and Socrates, crime, blood diamonds, religion and romance. There’s still plenty of bad language and arrogant macho swagger. Jay-Z boasts “what’s fifty grand to a m**** f*** like me?” and West rejoins “You know how many hot b**** I own?”
Hip hop started out as party music. It was how the show ended, with repeated plays of “N****s In Paris,” a celebratory frenzy of bouncing electro and luxurious high-living.
The Watch the Throne tour continues in Europe through June 22. There are shows in Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, France, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, the U.K. and the Netherlands.
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(Robert Heller is a music critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include an interview by Manuela Hoelterhoff, Scott Reyburn on auctions, John Mariani on wine and Farah Nayeri on film from Cannes.