When rap royals Jay-Z and Kanye West unveiled “Watch the Throne” in August, the duo’s collaboration album delivered a perverse thrill. Two pop icons were asking an America with its teeth kicked in to celebrate their wealth, power and prestige.
And we did! The album debuted at the top of the charts.
But since then, our nation has split in two — 99s over here in the park, ones up there in the penthouse. And while Jay-Z and West might be making some of the strongest music of their respective careers right now, they certainly aren’t singing “We Shall Overcome.”
So why did the duo’s Thursday night concert at the sold-out Verizon Center feel so triumphant, so zeitgeisty, so deeply exultant? Because all of those magisterial rhymes about living extra-large in the twilight of late-capitalism were underscored by a camaraderie that’s become increasingly rare amid the social isolation of the information age. Instead of brandishing their egos, they showed us fellowship.
For more than two hours, the pair played tug of war with their biggest hits, matching the concert’s visual brio beat for beat, rhyme for rhyme. At one point West shouted, “I want you to remember this night for the rest of your lives!” Done.
It’ll be impossible to forget what it looked like. This was the most visually stunning hip-hop concert tour ever assembled. Hulking video screens glowed with slow motion footage of mushroom clouds and killer sharks. Laser beams sliced the air with a strange, stately elegance. All of these visual elements were arranged symmetrically, making the stage look like a video game folded into a Rorschach blot.
There is, of course, an even greater creative symmetry in this partnership. And that was the real triumph on Thursday night. Jay-Z played the workmanlike mentor, dressed in a black Yankees cap and cargo pants. West was the rambunctious pupil, sporting a black leather kilt, looking like the coolest man on Earth.
And while Jay-Z’s easy rapport with the audience often made the concert feel like it was his alone, it would be foolish to ignore how big a role West has played in keeping this man relevant. Jay delivered many of these same hits at the Verizon Center last year — “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” and “Izzo (H.O.V.A.”) among them. They felt perfunctory. Here, stoked by friendly competition, they sounded ecstatic.
And the ecstasy was nonstop. Taking turns, each rapper performed their songs in batches of two or three or four. There were no momentum-sucking interludes, no insufferable costume changes, no bathroom breaks or any of that nonsense. Just 37 songs back to back to back. Fans never had a chance to sit down.
That didn’t stop the rappers from taking a seat on stage during Jay’s “Hard Knock Life.” West smiled, bobbed his head and mouthed along, as if the duo were chilling on the steps of a Brooklyn brownstone. It was the most intimate moment of a night punctuated with momentous lighting, video and pyrotechnics.
Somehow, all that visual razzle-dazzle never curdled, setting this tour high above the stage-cluttering spectacles that Lady Gaga, Rihanna, the Black Eyed Peas and even Taylor Swift have made the industry standard. Instead of tickling retinas for the sake of it, this concert’s imagery consistently fed the mood and message of the music.
It wasn’t always pretty. While Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” seeped from the speakers, images of poverty and warfare flickered across the screen. When grainy black-and-white footage of a child wearing the robes of the Ku Klux Klan appeared on screen, Jay chimed in: “Racism, it’s taught.”
That set the tone for “No Church in the Wild,” the song from “Watch the Throne” with the most profound refrain: “Human beings in a mob/What’s a mob to a king?/ What’s a king to a God? What’s a God to a non-believer who don’t believe in anything?”
On the album, the hook is sung by R&B up-and-comer Frank Ocean, but here his tenor was piped in by a DJ. There were no guests on stage — just teacher and student, sounding better together than they ever have apart.
This review was updated at 1:00 p.m.