By Justin Lyons.
Maybe it’s because the last time Jay-Z came to Atlanta he owned Philips Arena. It could be due to the fact Kanye is known for his memorable performance prowess. Possibly, it’s because these two have made some of the most important hip-hop albums of the past 15 years (and sometimes together). Whatever the reason, the first stop of the duo’s newly coined Watch The Throne tour was still a great performance, but certainly a let down.
As the clock struck nine, the house lights in Philips Arena dimmed as the recurring Hitchcock-inspired theme from the Watch the Throne played. The building shook as two gigantic cube platforms at opposite ends of the room rose with Jay-Z near the soundboard and Kanye closest to the main stage. Two of hip-hop’s legends opened to the triumphant sounds of “H.A.M.” as the elevated pillars turned to video screens with rabid dogs accompanying the gruff Lex Luger production. Both acts dressed in all black with Jay-Z sporting his constant NY Yankee lid with dark jeans and Kanye showcasing what could only be described as a leather kilt. The only thing lacking was intelligible bars from Jay-Z and Kanye. Both MCs did their best to verbally spar, but missed lines and quite frankly, sounded out of breath. It was the first night of the tour, so excitement and nerves can put any performer on edge, but rehearsal should have taken care of that for these two seasoned vets. New material continued and while things progressed, it was clear the hip-hop royalty needed more time with the shared stage. Jay was admirably trying to get the crowd into amped, but Kanye looked a bit rattled as the duo pushed through “Who Gon Stop Me,” a flag engulfed “Otis” and trunk rattler “Gotta Have It.”
Both artists were much more comfortable during short interchanged sets of their solo material. The difference in Shawn Carter and Kanye West’s solo crowd anthems was particularly surprising. While Jay still carry’s an old head hip-hop edge (“99 Problems,” “Where I’m From”), Kanye goes for the jugular with electronic pop anthems (“Stronger,” “All Of The Lights”) and auto-tune ballads (“Heartless,” “Runaway”). The duo emit poise and quickly regained their fans’ praise.
Jay-Z’s hit parades are staples of his solo shows, so it was refreshing to see he hasn’t tired of past material. Highlights included a spellbinding rendition of “PSA,” “U Don’t Know” and “Big Pimpin'” complete with a lost MTV verse and crowd participation reciting Bun B’s bars acappella. As lazy and monotonous as “On To The Next One” is upon private listening, the Swizz Beatz production still managed to get even the most sluggish audience members moving before erupting to “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” During one of Jay’s short sets, you could almost see Kanye look up to Mr. Carter as an older brother smiling as he mastered the sold out venue with every movement. When paired together for “Run This Town,”, you could feel Jay-Z willing Kanye to succeed and Mr. West finally met expectations of the masses. When he had the glowing stage to himself, Kanye exuded confidence and emotion while bouncing through “Good Life” and a bombastic delivery of “Gold Digger.”
The show closed down with a riotous rendition of current WTT hit “N****s in Paris” that after two verses Jay-Z abruptly commanded the DJ to “run it back.” The frenzy continued with the obligatory encore with, you guessed it “Encore.” Any anticipation for special guests (T.I.? Young Jeezy? Anyone?) was quickly quelled though as “We Made It In America” and “Why I Love You” finished the night. Great album cuts to be sure, but certainly not a show stopping closers for the biggest hip-hop tour in ages.
Though Watch the Throne is clearly a contender for hip-hop album of the year, it’s surprisingly not as arena-friendly as one might think. Sure, the audience went nuts when “N****s in Paris” was played not once, but twice. However, it was almost as if the energy was drained from the room when many WTT tracks played. The Throne has always said the album was intended to be listened to in one sitting and didn’t release an “official single.” Jumping from WTT tracks to the numerous crowd-pleasing hits took the songs out of their true context.
Jay-Z and Kanye West are absolutely two of the best performers in any genre, but maybe that is why it has taken the two this long to get together in the first place?