Jay-Z and Kanye West
Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011
HP Pavilion, San Jose
Better than: Absolute monarchy.
Between the rising, screen-sided platform stages, the frequent spew of fire jets, Kanye's skirt/kilt thing, "99 Problems," the ineffably proud gleam in Jay-Z's eye, the repeating "Niggas in Paris" of the encore, and the fact that two of the best rappers alive were alone onstage for more than two hours playing many of their best songs, it was, let's say, a seriously regal throwdown in San Jose's Shark Tank last night. Cray, you might even say. (Sorry.) So as our befuddled mind recovers from the spectacle, all we can do for you is collect what stood out as the night's 10 most Maybach-driving, Basquiat-collecting, gold-plated, opulent-beyond-all-reason moments and/or trappings. Prepare to feel impoverished.
1. Two (yes, two) "thrones."
Each began the show on their own black square separate from the main stage. These turned out to be rising platforms, whose sides turned out to be giant LCD displays, which turned out to be amazing throughout the night. Kanye West performing "Runaway" bathed in the red gleam of his own glowing cube was eerie enough -- then the lights below him shifted into blue for "Stronger," and his statuesque visage became frigid and terrifying. But Jay-Z got the best use of his cube-screen platform for "Big Pimpin'": Illuminated only from above by a spray of laser, the platform under his feet showed just the barest outline of the rapper moving in near-dark -- one of the night's most striking visuals.
Jets of flame. A wall of fire shooting upward. Tongues of yellow-red snarl shooting down from the trusses above the stage. Fire blasts to the deep bass knock of "Otis." Fire punctuation to the beat of "Big Pimpin'." Fire all the time -- so hot we could feel it from our seats. We sort of wonder about the gas bill, but, well, these guys can afford it.
3. Kanye West, Art Monster
West appeared like some ghetto gladiator in a black kilt,
vintage signature-model Nikes, and a black T-shirt with huge white stars around the collar. But thrashing on his elevated throne singing "Runaway," or delivering a monologue where he mentioned once considering suicide, West felt also like the quintessential artist aching just to express his own complex self. When the big screens above the stage blasted images of his face, it was streaked with sweat, framed by swollen veins, and wearing the stoic expression of a Greek statue. West is the tortured genius of this duo, but also the insatiable general. He didn't inherit his crown; through immense talent and crazed ambition, he conquered it. You can see the scars.
4. "Empire State of Mind"
The self-proclaimed "greatest rapper alive" pivoted effortlessly from thanking the audience for welcoming him to the Bay Area to taking us to his home; that wistful piano cycle arrived; the entire arena slipped into elation, and the fans sang along to every word. It may not be hood, but Jay-Z's New York anthem is a perfectly epic bit of pop-hop boosterism, and hearing it live tugged at the heartstrings of this Bay Area native more than he'd like to admit.
5. Jay-Z and Kanye's moment
What it was exactly, we cannot say. But during Jay-Z's final verse of "New Day" -- that song on Watch the Throne where they talk about their hopes and plans for their as-yet-unborn children -- both were sitting down on the main stage. As he rapped, Jay took off his Yankees hat (for the first time of the night), reached over, and affectionately tapped Kanye's knee with it. Yeezy looked over, and the two of them shared a knowing smile that was captured on the huge screens above. There was a deeply happy gleam in Jay's eyes. "Thanks for that moment," he said afterward, a king finally seeming human.
6. The grin-inducing, shout-eliciting, mind-blowing hit parade
Which included many of the best big hip-hop songs of the last decade: "Jesus Walks." "Gold Digger." "99 Problems." "Big Pimpin.'" "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)." "Flashing Lights." "Monster." "Touch the Sky." These were interspersed with highlights from Watch the Throne, like "Otis," "Lift Off," "Who Gon Stop Me," etc. Of all the big tours of 2011, does any have a larger number of great songs?