Watching The Throne

As I was walking to my seat for the Watch The Throne tour, I saw every type of person imaginable. I saw middle-aged women with glitter on their faces and sequins on their blouses, I saw a guy in a Donovan McNabb Redskins jersey, and I saw somebody wearing green flannel pajamas and a red ushanka on his head. It was confusing, but I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that so many different types of people were at the Air Canada Centre to watch these two guys rap.

I love Kanye West, and if you have read anything I’ve written before, you probably know this. I also love Jay-Z, albeit with a few more conditions. I thought their joint album Watch The Throne was mostly great, and that it reflected, for better or worse, how hip-hop has grown. What the show itself showed me is that hip-hop has grown, to the point where Kanye and Jay-Z at times seemed to be MCing a laser show more than performing hip-hop. That being said, it was all pretty great.

The show began with H.A.M., as Kanye rapped from the main stage and Jay-Z entered through the crowd onto a smaller stage opposite Mr. West. These stages elevated themselves, and were covered by some kind of video screen. (Note: I apologize for being terrible at describing things that happen outside of a movie theater.) At later points in the show, this would allow Kanye to perform Runaway on a bright red elevated cube while lasers corresponded with the song’s piano notes, and Jay-Z performed On to the Next One while the only thing visible in the arena was his silhouette on the green background. When he used a laser silhouette with Dirt Off Your Shoulder in the next song, I was pretty sure I had entered TRON, or at least the Black Eyed Peas Superbowl halftime show.

The crowd seemed to be mostly into the show that was going on in front of us: Kanye and Jay-Z are both more than competent performers, and even though there was only a small band with a couple of keyboards and an occasional guitar appearance, the sound was appropriately cool. The synths made No Church in the Wild sound even more gigantic and menacing than it usually does; Touch the Sky and Stronger similarly got better with the added musical accompaniment. Here are some more highlights of the show:

  • Kanye was great, but Jay-Z is an unbelievable live performer. Switching up his flows on classic songs was a nice twist, and the guy never broke stride while performing his lyrically awful but technically difficult third verse on Who Gon Stop Me while standing on what was essentially a descending Reboot cube.
  • They performed Gotta Have It, and the crowd was really into it, even singing the James Brown sample stabs that make up the chorus. As a fan of that massively underappreciated beat by Kanye and The Neptunes (the layering of the sample, the synths, and then Pharrell harmonizing with all of it during the verses is perfect), I was happy other people seem to dig the song that nobody mentioned when reviewing the album in August.
  • Hip-hop elitist point #1: Jay-Z played a decent amount of older songs, but the crowd generally did not seem to be into the pre-2000, non-Hard Knock Life songs he played. When he turned his mic on the audience during Where I’m From and mentioned people arguing about who the best MC is, I was the only person in my section to yell the desired reply of “Biggie, Jay-Z or Nas.”
  • Fucking nobody likes Made in America, you guys. Stop trying to make that happen. You’re like Gretchen Weiner with ‘fetch’ at this point.
  • Indisputable pro-sampling argument: a clip of Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness was played as a lead-in to Otis, and a full Air Canada Centre began singing along without being provoked. Regardless of whether or not the people singing knew who Otis Redding was, hearing 15 000-plus singing one of his songs decades after his death proves that sampling elongates a musician’s artistic life. While most sampled songs do not earn the recognition Otis has gotten Redding, somebody sampling your song will always result in more ears hearing it, even if it is in a way that has been chopped up by Kanye West’s MPC. Artists should make money when they are sampled in a commercial song, but being staunchly anti-sampling just seems ridiculous.
  • Hip-hop elitist point #2: If you told me in 2003 that a song that is credited as an interlude on The Black Album would become a Jay-Z anthem, I never would have believed you. The moral here: attaching Public Service Announcement on the end of the Dirt Off Your Shoulder video was probably a great decision.
  • Seeing the Diamonds from Sierra Leone remix performed by the pair together made me extremely happy. While nothing can top seeing Jay-Z rap the ‘one hit away’ line while standing right next to Memphis Bleek a couple years ago, this version was still delightful. People forget how good this song is, and how huge Jay-Z’s verse on it was at the time.
  • The alternate beat for the first verse of Stronger was fucking incredible, as were the synth additions to Power.
  • Hip-hop elitist point #3: The crowd cheered when Kanye gave shout outs to RZA and Raekwon during the intro for New Day. Wu-Tang Clan (still) ain’t nothing to fuck with.
  • Kanye went all out as he performed Touch the Sky, sprinting from one end of the stage to the other while rapping. Given how tight those leather pants underneath his kilt looked, this was an impressive feat.
  • Throughout the tour, Kanye has staged a mini-rant about making sure the light programming was correct before All of the Lights, stopping mid-song two times before eventually performing the whole thing. He sells it well, and it is a hilariously self-aware thing for Kanye to do.
  • The girl next to me lost her damn mind during Gold Digger. She stepped on my feet about five times in three minutes, never once pissed me off, but apologized every time anyway. I love seeing people get excited about good hip-hop songs; if that requires the big toe on my right foot hurting for the next couple days, so be it.
  • Hip-hop elitist point #4: Jay-Z’s No Church in the Wild verse might be the only lyrical highlight he has on Watch The Throne, but it’s fucking incredible. (I like his New Day verse and all, but the ‘repeat’ line bothers me a lot. You can tell there that Jay-Z thinks he’s being clever, whereas No Church in the Wild is actually clever.)
  • They closed the show with N****s in Paris, before playing N****s in Paris again. And then when they came back for the encore, they played N****s in Paris AGAIN. It was hilarious, and the crowd loved the decision.
  • Hip-hop elitist point #5: People know Jay-Z is no longer on Roc-A-Fella, right? I suppose the diamond symbol has become more about him than the label. He came up with the name, now he’s taking fame from that.
  • Kanye put on a Blue Jays hat that somebody threw on the stage towards the end of the show, one with the new logo and everything. I’m happy that person sacrificed $50 to give us the image of Kanye West in a Blue Jays hat.

Throughout the show, I couldn’t help but notice how much power was being used by my hip-hop heroes. I mean, this show had four spotlight operators hanging from above the stage, and there were moments when I realized the cost of the power for the show would have paid my rent for thirty lifetimes. This show was, like the album, a celebration of how popular hip-hop has gotten, and it has apparently gotten popular enough to have multiple elevated spotlight operators.

As Jay-Z and Kanye played songs from across their respective catalogues for the two and a half hours they were onstage, I found myself remembering countless memories of my life that these specific songs were tied to. Realizing I kind of hated I.Z.Z.O. while listening to The Blueprint on my Discman in Mr. Pratt’s Grade 10 science class, or lying down on the floor in my apartment and listening to Graduation for the first time six years later. I remembered the look on a coworker/Kanye superfan’s face when I walked in one day with a burned copy of the recently-leaked Late Registration, and I remembered rapping along to Jay-Z’s Diamonds verse with that same coworker while we counted tills. I recalled a conversation I had with somebody I thought I hated when we realized we had similar opinions on The Black Album; I believe this conversation focused on the optimal volume to listen to PSA at (answer: maximum). Shit, I can recall buying a P’Zone while Jesus Walks was playing in a Pizza Hut.

The way Kathie Lee needed Regis that's the way I need... P'Zones.

Kanye West and Jay-Z have occupied the past decade of my life, and looking around the crowd the other night, I realized I was not alone. Even if the girl who loved Gold Digger was only into that song, she was clearly extremely passionate about it. Music sticks in the average person’s head like no other art form; Nicki Minaj’s Super Bass has been stuck in our collective heads for months in a way a Ryan Gosling line in The Ides of March could never be. This is what allows us to tie so many memories and time periods to songs, and seeing this happen on a massive scale is interesting. I’ve been a big fan of hip-hop since about 1997, and as it has continued to ascend into popular culture’s consciousness since then, it has only gotten more interesting. Seeing a wide range of people at the Watch The Throne tour proved this; I might not have had the same memories tied to the same songs as the guy in the pajamas, but we had something in common. I might have known that Donavan McNabb was going to be a bust in Washington, but the guy in the number 5 jersey was still on the same level as me that night. We were there to watch the last decade in hip-hop, which by extension was the last decade in pop culture and our lives. Gigantic acts like Kanye, Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, and U2 might use too much power, or their tickets might be unreasonably priced, or they might make some awful songs, but what they provide us with isn’t just music. It’s a stadium full of people singing an Otis Redding song in unison, or that same stadium losing their mind over a Jay-Z single from 2001. Pop culture is the way modern people often come together, and seeing so many people come together over the art form that people are generally the most emotional towards is endearing. Kanye and Jay-Z might exist in a tax bracket that nobody else at the show will ever reach, but their earnings are commensurate with the intangible value they provide for us. We were a stadium full of entirely different people who shared a collective experience, and a little bit of ourselves, for a couple of hours. Which is probably just as incomparable as each of our stars’ musical talents.

Alex writes about film and pop culture over at The MacGuffin Men. You can subscribe to his weekly podcast with James here, follow them on Twitter, or continue to read about his trips to the cinema at Songs & Cigarettes.