Watching the Throne

I left my brain cells on the bleachers at the Air Canada Centre last night. It was the first of a Jay-Z and Kanye West double-header billed “The Throne” – as in Watch the Throne, the gilded luxe-rap mega-album released earlier this summer – and anticipated for months since tickets went up, and promptly sold out, in August. “Best show ever!” “Greatest concert of life!” “So jealous reading #WTT tweets,” were among the text and Twitter reactions rolling in post-show, and they were so apt because it felt impossible to conjure up anything more eloquent in response to such a triumphant rap spectacle.

For about 150 unwavering minutes, the world’s most famous, exalted rappers held mind-body sway over an arena’s worth of people. To the operatic opening strains of contemporary hymnal “H.A.M.”n.b. “Hard As a Motherfucker,” use it in a sentence! – Jay and Kanye ascended above the floor on gleaming cubic pulpits. Below, each side of their mounts projected fang-bearing wolves, yellow-eyed wildcats and stillness-breaking Great Whites. The primal motifs were repeated throughout the show, hinting as much to the frothing, teeming audience as the dudely display of cultural dominance by the rappers. So much happening just one song in!

Side-by-side on the main stage for “Otis,” Kanye and Jay-Z moved into a comfortable, sibling-ish dynamic they’d keep up for the rest of the show. Jay played the ever-cool vet in a black, studded-brim Yankees cap and jeans, rapping verses to Throne songs and his own largely on the spot, stepping back and forth in time to the beat. Kanye, the showboat-y little brother, was the opposite: orbiting Jay, running full-speed from one side of the stage to the other, dancing with his limbs flailing. Just a half-year after he caught flack for that breezy Celine blouse at Coachella, and in a world where small minds dwell on Drake sweater jokes, we were bowing to a New Age rap deity peacocking around in a black leather kilt and leggings.

All of that plus the lasers would’ve been enough, but there is the fact of their respective, genre-crushing discographies. In reality it was simultaneously a joy and a disappointment to rap along to songs like “Flashing Lights” and “Public Service Announcement” and “Power” and “Heartless” and… I’ll stop because the list is long. They kept the energy level high by doing away with distinction; Jay would adlib on a Kanye song, while ‘Ye mouthed along to “Hard Knock Life.” New songs introduced old and the audience bellowed hooks in lieu of Rihanna or Frank Ocean. Hinging on their biggest hits and songs with the most bombast – perfect for the flames licking up across the stage – it was a bit difficult, as a fan, to not want more. Would it have killed someone to throw in “D’evils”?! I suppose that’s asking too much considering they closed the night with Watch the Throne’s catchphrase-spawning hit (“that shit cray”) “N*ggas in Paris” THREE TIMES IN A ROW.

Watching the friends share a stage is more than a cultural dominance thing; it’s the zenith of a shared history that’s been documented, specifically by Kanye, on record. “Stadium status,” he presciently opens Graduation’s “Big Brother,” before detailing being too shy to speak to Jay, buying tickets to see a show featuring songs he’d produced, back-talking the fact that both did songs with Coldplay and having it come around…. As the myth of the American Dream is being dismantled by protesters on Wall Street and in St. James Park, here we are rallying around Kanye’s textbook success story. “Big Brother” shares a dreamy, gripping narrative – one of the great egoist’s humblest moments – irresistible to passionate people with intense admiration for the best in their game. It’s a song I wish Kanye performed in the presence of his idol, but that probably would’ve been too mushy for a show that was all about asserting a very real power.

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