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:
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.
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.