Watch the Throne is a live triumph

by Ryan Snyder

It’s been more than two months since the release of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s seismic collaboration Watch the Throne, yet the hip-hop listening community still can’t agree on its merits. Many said it was unrelatable, but no matter how the final product is viewed, the collaboration is like the American banking system. Jay-Z and Kanye have consolidated their assets into one project and it’s just too big to fail. Long stretches of silence straight from the John Cage playbook and woe-is-me tales from the richest guys in hip hop say the pair isn’t playing by any of the rules, even though they wrote most of them. It’s destined to be a contentious album, but when it comes to the merits of the massive tour to support it, there’s going to be little doubt.

The two titans came to Greensboro on Sunday in just the third performance — and second city — of the Watch the Throne tour with a show that was kept in such tight secrecy that the first reviews of the Atlanta shows made for stories themselves. Details about the production were scarce-to-nonexistent prior, zero media and photo credentials were issued and the crowd was kept in stitches well past the 7:30 p.m. ticket time and its unspoken 30-minute cushion. The suspense manifested in the form of intermittent boos as the clock ticked past 9 p.m. with only the faint sound of Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit” trickling out of the house PA.

It wasn’t until 20 past that the house lights dropped and the restless lull that hung over the room for two hours transformed into screams and flashing cameras as the booming bass of “HAM” blasted throughout the coliseum. Anyone looking for Jay-Z or Kanye to be given the “edge” over the other in positioning found their efforts futile. Jay-Z’s name was first on the ticket — alphabetically as it were — but Kanye made the first entrance on the main stage before Jigga Man emerged on the island across the room minutes later. The two rappers did what can best be described as a microcosm of the last eight years up until Watch the Throne – shouting at each other across a sea of listeners.

The show was a fascinating paradox in just about every conceivable way. The duo’s backing instrumentation was as minimal as possible. A pair of synth players and a DJ with an entire mixing studio at hand were flawless in their execution. With only a few lasers, a modest LCD backdrop, token pyrotechnics, a column that rose out of the center of each stage and an obsessive focus on animal imagery, the production itself was not overly extravagant. The set list, however, was nothing short of epic.

Six landmark albums in all were represented over more than two hours of music, not even counting Watch the Throne. The programming shifted from the album at hand after five songs to an assault of greatest hits and mini soliloquies from the two rappers. Jay-Z took the first crack at solo material with “N—a What N—a Who,” before Kanye ran off a string of material that included mild intimidation of an unsatisfying lighting team during “All of the Lights” and forgetting a verse to “Good Life.” The specter of Kanye’s public demeanor and his self-absorbed solo performances was only that, however. For a moment, both seemed like real, relatable people.

It is a concept that’s tough to grasp, but picture Jay-Z and Kanye arriving separately at each venue with their own army of tour buses. Now imagine them stooping on the stage like boys from back in the day, waxing on the ins and outs of fatherhood on “New Day.” Picture Kanye West putting aside ego to fill in for Brother Marquis’s trivial cameo as the cop on “99 Problems,” then laugh off the flub on “The Good Life.” Almost everything about Watch the Throne doesn’t seem a part of the personalities these two have painstakingly created, but that’s the beauty of artists like Jay-Z and Kanye: they can be essentially who they want to be and still be great while doing it.