And so today concludes the run of ‘Watch The Throne’ shows in London. Back in August of last year, I was one of a lucky handful of British members of the music press who were flown over to New York for the purpose of hearing and reviewing Jay-Z and Kanye’s album. No one else does things like that for an album launch anymore, and no one probably will ever again. It was at the bloody planetarium, where attendees were distracted from the LONG wait to actually hear it – underneath projections of comets and planets and big bangs – by an ocean of super-high-end spirits and the sort of canapés that say, “You are at an important event”.
From the start, the whole thing was about grandiosity and scale… like, how big can an album be? “We gonna take it to the moon/Take it to the stars…”, goes one of the first, Beyonce-sung choruses on the album (‘Lift Off’). “How many people you know who can take it this far?” The answer to which was: “Not the Maccabees, that’s for damn sure.”
But with some distance from these scenes of crazy-bigness, and repeated listens in the cold light of day in rainy London on a packed tube train, the ‘Watch The Throne’ album did not sound mindblowing. To make sense, it needs all the bluster around it. So I was looking forward to heading down to the O2 (and “looking forward to heading down to the O2” is not an expression I use often, I can assure you).
And one thing is for sure, it was A Spectacle. But not one without its problems. Here are some mental notes I made during the show about said problems, now turned into actual notes on your screen.
1The live-in-an-arena hip hop experience is still not hugely satisfying
You know how your granddad describes rap music as “just shouting over a drum beat”? At times that’s what this is. It’s a fundamental problem, in that hip hop is a lot about a) production intricacies, which all get reduced to the thud-thud-thud of a kickdrum when the volume goes up loud enough to be heard in Row Z; b) laconic flow, which often has to become a bellow to compete with said volume.
Kanye’s ‘808’s…’ woe-is-me confessional segment was good, but the bit where the music stopped and he just sang into a mic that made him sound like a tearful android wasn’t happening. At all. It didn’t help that he was stood on a big tower at one end of the arena, and the vocals themselveswere eminating from speakers at the other end.
The whole tower blocks at either end of the arena with one half of the Throne on each was, no question, a bit of a spectacle. But it didn’t half make it easy to miss things, and give everyone at the foot of them a sore neck, and result in the person next to you quite often having their back to you, seemingly oblivious to what you were focused on. The best bits were when they were onstage at one end, together, staring each other out, and the crowd was having one giant collective experience, rather than two half-as-big collective experiences.
Just because it was choreographed to a preposterous degree, with every step, ad lib, song intro EXACTLY the same. “You know what we need now, ’Ye?” “What’s that, Jay?” etc etc etc. Saying that, Rihanna showed up on the Sunday, so maybe just ignore me on this point.
5Encores comprised of just the last single played four times in a row are rubbish
Of course, you think the last thing you’ve done is also the best thing you’ve ever done. But no-one else does.
Soz Kanye, but it’s true. Jay-Z is just one of those guys who can walk into a room and everyone instantly focuses on him. Kanye is one of those guys who, now he’s famous, can walk into a room and everybody instantly focuses on him. But strip the two of them of their current status, and Jay-Z wipes the floor with him in the charisma stakes. Fact: on the first night Jay just appeared way more glamorous in a mere t-shirt and jeans, even next to Kanye’s leather dress/leather jeans ensemble. In American high school movie terms, Jay-Z is like the guy who gets laid all the time, Kanye is the guy who’s gets to hang around with the cool kids cos he’s done everyone’s maths homework for them.
Especially in a really hot, full-to-capacity arena. Kanye was sweating buckets by about the third song, and looked like he was going to pass out by the fourth. At which point Jay had barely even broken a sweat.
But might have prompted more than few calls from the more-than-a-few middle aged couples here to check in with the babysitter, before they got back to rapping alongwith, “From the dope spot/with my smokin’ glock/Fleein’ the murder scene/You know me well”.
But ‘Made In America’ has definitely got the cheesiest chorus ever.
The onstage body language was definitely more towards the Liam-and-Noel-in-2009 rather than Pete-and-Carl-in-2002 end of the scale. And their personalities just do seem to jar with rather than compliment each other. When Jay made his “genius producer” hailing about his partner in crime, the look on Kanye’s face spoke volumes, the first line of which read: “I ain’t NOBODY’S producer no more, thanks very much”.