Jay-Z and Kanye West at LG Arena
There’s little than can be written about Watch The Throne itself that hasn’t already been shared, blogged or tweeted in the 11 months since the highly anticipated Jay-Z/Kanye West collab was released, properly, following perhaps the most miraculous non-leak of the post-Napster era. And nothing about Friday’s tour closer in Birmingham, U.K. — the final gig of a 57-date jaunt that spanned nearly eight months, 12 countries and two continents — was all that different from the string of much-buzzed-about performances that preceded it. Well, besides Beyonce and Kim Kardashian watching it from the floor, of course. (Encircled by a gaggle of linebacker-sized bodyguards, natch.)
Yet there was a sense of profundity, if not history, to the final recital of what could very well be remembered as the finest hour of arena hip-hop, since it’s hard to imagine where the genre, if that’s what we’re calling it, can possibly go from here. The dizzying floor-to-ceiling lasers during “All Of The Lights,” the pitch-perfect pyrotechnics during “Otis” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” the epileptic light-spasms during “N*****s in Paris”: all of it was informed with a greater sense of occasion for nearly two-and-a-half hours on a chilly night in the West Midlands, the tour’s fifth show in a U.K. market that’s helped propel overall receipts past the $50-million mark.
The LG Arena, a hip 16,000-seat multi-purpose venue with interiors that marry elements of A Clockwork Orange with Back To The Future Part II, was packed to the gills by the time Jay-Z and Kanye emerged from opposite ends of the space on hydraulic powered cubical platforms that slowly elevated more than 40 feet, making each performer a prototypical spectacle while prompting an arena-wide starscape of camera phones. The artsy visuals only built from there, from the Givenchy-designed American flag during “Otis,” to the provocative (yet knowingly meaningful) juxtaposition of Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” against discomforting archival footage of prepubescent Ku Klux Klansmen.
Truth be told, Yeezy is a bit of a cheesedick, and Watch The Throne lays this fact bare. His flow has always been dubious, to put it charitably, and that’s only more evident when cast in relief with an all-time great lyricist like Jay-Z. Whatever underdog edge West carried from his post-Taylor Swift exile and triumphant return — a ridiculously underappreciated comeback since people either forget or never grasped the gravity of the stakes (i.e. another melancholic woe-is-me confessional like 808s & Heartbreak, a record I happened to like, might have crippled his mainstream popularity for good) — was annulled when Pitchfork gave My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy the first 10.0 rating it’d handed down in nearly a decade. This year’s merger with Kardashian, Inc., only further calls into question the self-styled Man Apart identity that makes Kanye nothing if not compelling theater. Ye might not want our approval, nor should he (even though he almost positively does), but what of self-respect?
Yet Kanye’s softy persona — on full, unsparing view during an appropriately overwrought “Runaway”/”Heartless” double that spans nearly 20 minutes — works so effectively within the WTT construct: the accessible flawed artist (like so many of us in the audience) as counterpoint to Jay-Z’s unattainable, unassailable genius. Thus it’s acceptable when the well-worked high-def cameras — the show’s understated highlight — offer extreme close-ups of Yeezy’s raining sweat on a black sequined jacket that evokes a poor-man’s Carl Anderson from Jesus Christ Superstar.
A pause here to consider how wrong this all could have gone. Jay-Z’s high-profile collabs aren’t exactly bulletproof. (2002’s “The Best of Both Worlds,” anyone? Say nothing of its even-more-regrettable sequel.) There wasn’t an obvious radio song on Watch The Throne when it dropped. Of the two best-performing tracks chart-wise, “Otis” lacks both a chorus and a bridge, and “N*****s in Paris” improbably made it to No. 5 despite no radio DJ in the United States being able to call it by its name on the air. Yet every song from the now-platinum record smokes in live performance, thanks in no small part to the concert’s outrageous production value, a