Kanye West/Jay-Z, O2 Arena, London, May 18 - 22
Whether striding on at Glastonbury to sarcastically cover Oasis or storming awards show podiums to ruin acceptance speeches, Jay-Z and Kanye West already know a thing or two about making an entrance. But tonight (Friday, May 18), at the opening date of their ‘Watch The Throne’ mega-tour, it’s on a whole other level, as the disembodied trill of a soprano fills The O2 and the pair arrive on two platforms, facing each other like gladiators ready to do battle. Who with? Largely each other, as it turns out.
If ‘Watch The Throne’ was all about hip-hop’s two biggest egos somehow managing to work on the same page, the live show has much more of a competitive edge. And both of them have come armed with as many tricks as tracks at this 40-song, two-hour spectacle. As ‘Who Gon Stop Me’ kicks in, the stages are revealed to be platforms which rise skywards until the pair are 30 feet above the heads of the audience. Then, for ‘Otis’, Kanye is spirited over to join Jay-Z on the main stage, and the pair stand before a huge unfurling stars and stripes, the nearby flame-belching pyrotechnics threatening to cause a diplomatic incident.
When it comes to the solo stints, it’s Kanye bringing the flair, the hits and, er, a bizarre leather skirt. On ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’, he stands alone on a darkened stage, encased in a pyramid of white light. Later, for ‘Runaway’, ‘Heartless’ and ‘Stronger’, he’s like an emo prince stood alone in the turret of a tower made of blue and red light, singing his little Auto-Tuned heart out.
But when things begin to flag, it’s Jay-Z that gets things firing again. As Kanye’s ego-trip starts to grate, as on ‘Diamonds From Sierra Leone’, the Hova is back, using lines such as “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man” like a blunt instrument. On the home straight, the pair display more of a united front. Sat on the stage like it’s a front stoop, they do ‘Made In America’ and ‘New Day’, a homesick Hova dedicating the latter to “all those thinking of their loved ones tonight”. They also address their shared history, Jay-Z asking the crowd to “make some noise for the genius Kanye West!” before the Kanye-produced ‘Blueprint’ classic ‘Izzo (HOVA)’.
A solid run of hits – ‘Big Pimpin’’! ‘Gold Digger’! ‘99 Problems’! – culminates with a brief interlude of Louis Armstrong’s ‘What A Wonderful World’ and the pair stand silent with their backs to the audience, the screens showing videos of African-American baptisms, Ku Klux Klansmen and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It sets the tone for a climactic ‘Niggas In Paris’ – “the realest shit you’ll ever see” according to Kanye – which they play not once, not twice, but four times, the pair bouncing around the stage with rhymes ricocheting back and forth. It encapsulates everything that makes tonight’s enthralling hip-hop pantomime (just about) work: ‘…The Throne’ may be big enough for two, but since a competitive spirit brings out the best in Jay and ’Ye, it’s something you hope they never truly realise themselves.