Kanye West seems to be celebrated and berated in equal measure nowadays, in the news more for his outrageous comments than his musical output, but the self-proclaimed ‘musical genius’ can still captivate a packed arena, with the awed audience hanging on his every word.
Throughout the night, Kanye appeared unfazed by the prospect of manning the stage alone, performing a myriad of hits from his own solo career. His first solo moment in the spotlight came early in the set, with a flawless rendition of ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’. It was one of the highlights of the night, with the entire, decidedly animated, crowd relaying every word back to Kanye at the top of their voice. He then went on to perform a string of hits, including ‘Flashing Lights’, ‘Jesus Walks’ and finishing with ‘Diamonds from Sierra Leone’, which saw Jay-Z return to the stage to contribute his verse to the song.
Kanye was also responsible for the gentlest section of the entire two and a half hour set, performing an extended version of ‘Runaway’, where he comments on his ‘asshole’ side, declaring ‘If I said I don't like your hair tonight, don't listen to me because I'm an asshole, you're always fine.’ Fortunately, the down time didn’t last long and he soon burst into the heavily auto-tuned ‘Heartless’, then straight into ‘Stronger’.
It was interesting to note that Kanye undeniably got the crowd moving more than Jay-Zs solo sections, mostly due to his songs’ more mainstream appeal and their huge, sing-along friendly choruses. Exemplified best by ‘Gold Digger’, Kanye isn’t as suavely cool as Jay-Z, but his unrivalled ability as a producer, and his willingness to tackle personal issues in his music, more than makes up for it.
Jay-Z. Jigga-Man. Hova. God. Whatever it is you know him as it's fair to say that, although not everybody digs his music, everybody knows his name(s). Having been around for well over a decade, Jay-Z has established himself as one of the most financially successful artists of all time and a true icon. Whilst it is fair to say that the Birmingham crowd appreciated Kanye’s music more, (after all, chart-wise he is the most successful of the two over here in the UK) Jay-Z’s performance was no less than spectacular and I, along with many others in the crowd was left overwhelmed by his talent.
A good dancer dances in time and with execution. A good singer sings in tune and with expression. What Jay-Z does is combine all these traits through his carefully crafted verses, each phrase flowing effortlessly into the next, each word articulated impeccably and each sentence punctuated to perfection. The art of rap cannot be fully appreciated until it is heard live.
It was Hova that graced the audience with his solo material first, starting with ‘Gotta Have It’, ‘Where I’m from’ and ‘Jigga What, Jigga Who’, in which he orchestrated the crowd into sections, one screaming ‘Jigga What’ and the other replying ‘Jigga Who’. Jay-Z is a master of manipulating his audience and mustering up an electronic atmosphere that raced through the LG Arena. What was interesting about his set list was the way in which he did not isolate his material. Instead, he was able to craft a story through his music, regardless of when they were written or what album they were from. ‘Big Pimpin’’ led onto ‘Gold Digger’ at which point Jay made clear that out of the ’99 Problems’ he has, a ‘Gold Digger’ ain’t one. It all seemed to make sense.
I have often thought that rapping live must be hard. Not only is there ten times the amount of lyrics to remember than your average pop song, and a lack of melody can often result in the artist shouting, rather than rapping. Nicki Minaj is guilty of this, as was Kanye at times. Yet Jay-Z proved that it can be done extremely well. It seems the way he phrases his sentences, the way he undulates from word to word enables him to craft a melody that the audience easily grasp onto. On the final night of the tour, and with his wife in the audience, Jay-Z brought something special to the LG. An element of cool and sophistication that even his couter-part couldn’t quite pull off. At 42, Jay-Z’s swag is still very much on point.
As thrilling as the two stars' solo performances were, the real magic occurred when the duo were on stage together, performing work from last summer's Watch The Throne collaboration album. The night began with a string of The Throne singles, starting with 'H.A.M', and right from the very first synth note, the entire crowd jumped to their feet, where they remained for the rest of the set.
Whilst there were a few notable omissions from the choice of The Throne tracks, most obviously 'Murder To Excellence', the duo made the decision to play 'New Day', which outlines each of the artists' approach to raising their future children. It features Jay-Z apologising to his, then unborn, daughter, 'Sorry junior, I already ruined ya, cause you ain't even alive, paparazzi pursuin' ya, sins of a father make your life ten times harder'. It's a heartfelt admission of the concern Jay-Z has of the media's influence on his daughter's life, and the entire song was tenderly performed with the pair perched on the stage step.
Of course, the big talking point of the tour has been the encore, with their single 'Ni**as in Paris' being performed up to 12 times in a row. For most artists, this would be considered tedious, but The Throne manage to pull it off by injecting bursts of energy into every line. The audience is encouraged to create 'a circle right back to the back stage', and it's then that the onlooking Beyonce and Kim Kardashian jump into the crowd, accompanied by their 3 burly security guards. As the song starts again for the fourth and final time, the crowd go wild, Kanye leaps into the audience, whilst Jay-Z is left to command the stage. It was the perfect end to a night best summed up by Jay-Z's own quote, 'you are now rapping along with the best in the world', and goddamn Jay-Z you were right.