It was a hip-hop show for the ages.
Not only did The Throne – better known as Jay-Z and Kanye West – prove once and for all that a hip-hop arena concert can be just as potent as any other genre, it also set the bar incredibly high for what arena shows should look and sound like and how they should be structured.
The Throne's first night in the area (they return to the Izod Center tonight and head to Madison Square Garden Monday and Tuesday) didn't just live up to the hype of watching hip-hop royalty perform together, it surpassed it. Jay and 'Ye's “Watch the Throne” show crafted a better story than Lady Gaga's “Monster Ball.” It built a more artistic spectacle than U2's “360” tour. It was just as chock-full of hits, if not more so, than arena outings from Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Rihanna. And, man, was it fun.
By the time they hit the show's climax – the one-two-three knockout punch of “Big Pimpin',” “Gold Digger” and “99 Problems” – Jay was smiling ear-to-ear and 'Ye was bouncing around the stage, in his black leather kilt over black leather pants, like a kid hopped up on too much candy. They were clearly having a good time and were pushing each other to be better, regardless of what hip-hop superstar etiquette may dictate. Jay had no problem serving as West's hype man on “Gold Digger,” simply emphasizing West's rhymes, and West seem thrilled to portray the cop in the raucous “99 Problems.”
Their playfulness was palpable, just like the flame pots so intense you could feel the heat or the bass so loud it rattled your chest, as well as made the massive video screens shake. But they also made it clear that there was more to this than a party.
The Throne broke the show into three parts – their problems, their inspirations and their triumphs. Sometimes, they performed together and sometimes apart, with the solo songs letting Jay and 'Ye show off in their own way. (The turn from Jay's spare “Jigga What, Jigga Who,” which shows off his impressive flow, to 'Ye's “Can't Tell Me Nothing,” which shows off his emotional side and his grand musical soundscapes, was particularly telling.) Even the staging supported the ideas, with West delivering a stunning mini-set of “Runaway,” “Heartless” and “Stronger” alone atop a massive glowing red cube in the middle of the floor, matching the isolated feeling of the songs.
And, just in case anyone missed it, The Throne wrapped up the two-hour, 20-minute show with three songs from their “Watch the Throne” album – including a powerful “No Church in the Wild” that featured footage from Hurricane Katrina, nuclear explosions and kids dressed as members of the Ku Klux Klan – that hammered each point home. They got so caught up in the celebration of their triumph that they did their current single “[Expletive] in Paris” three times in a row, each time louder and more energetic than the one before as the crowd hollered along.
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Hip-hop in general and “Watch the Throne” in particular has been criticized as out of touch for these uncertain economic times – as too much one-percent boasting for their 99-percent fanbase. But that's only true when certain lines in certain songs are looked at separately.
In context, it all makes sense and the “Watch the Throne” live show provided that context in spectacular fashion. “We are living our dreams every night,” Jay said in the run up to the triumphant “Made in America.” “Know that your dream can come true.”
SETLIST: H.A.M. / Who Gon Stop Me / Otis / Welcome to the Jungle / Gotta Have It / Where I'm From / Jigga What, Jigga Who / Can't Tell Me Nothing / Flashing Lights / Jesus Walks / Diamonds From Sierra Leone / Public Service Announcement / U Don't Know / Run This Town / Monster / Power / Made in America / New Day / Hard Knock Life / Izzo (H.O.V.A.) / Empire State of Mind / Runaway / Heartless / Stronger / On to the Next One / Dirt Off Your Shoulder / I Just Wanna Love You / That's My [Expletive] / Good Life / Touch the Sky /All of the Lights / Big Pimpin' / Gold Digger / 99 Problems / No Church in the Wild / Lift Off / [Expletive] in Paris / [Expletive] in Paris / [Expletive] in Paris / Encore