It threatened to turn ugly before it even started.
At 8:58 p.m., when a deep voice off-stage announced “two minutes” until showtime, boos, not cheers, filled Philips Arena.
You can’t blame fans for voicing their crankiness when a show with a 7:30 p.m. ticket (a ludicrous possibility for any rap or rock show) still hasn’t started by 9 p.m. And with the PR machine behind the “Watch the Throne” tour keeping any information about opening acts, start times, show setup or anything relevant on the kind of lockdown reserved for the C.I.A., all that the crowd could do was share frustrated eye rolls and sighs.
But Announcer Voice wasn’t lying this time, as the lights dropped at 9 p.m. sharp and red laser beams shot down on two spots – one on a square in front of the main stage and the other on a secondary square by the soundboard.
As the thumping backbeat to “H.A.M.” reverberated through the three-fourths full arena, the two titanic stars of this tour – Jay-Z and Kanye West – faced off from their respective cubes, which rose from the floor into towers of coolness.
The pairing of these mega-rappers (aka Hova and Yeezy) is to hip-hop fans what the joint tours of Elton John and Billy Joel have been over the years to middle-aged suburbanites: Bliss.
And while the opening night of the 32-date jaunt (which played a second date Saturday) wasn’t without quibbles – lousy sound, a slightly bloated set list, video footage that sometimes seemed haphazardly assembled – the bottom line is that the guys unveiled a brisk, hits-filled show that was as exhausting to watch as it was entertaining.
The natural inclination with these marquee couplings is to compare the performers. But it’s the huge differences between Jay-Z and Atlanta-born West that make them amusingly compatible.
Jay lumbers. West glides. Jay is a 100-percent-rock-solid rapper. West is a hybrid rapper and pop singer. Jay looks as if he’d be just as content lounging on his thousand dollar couch in New York as he does on stage. West looks as if his life depends on the adulation he receives from a crowd. Jay’s costume changes consisted of swapping black shirts and swiveling his omnipresent New York Yankees cap. West rotated through three ensembles, usually involving a type of skirt over his pants. (The press was prohibited from taking photos, otherwise you could see for yourselves.)
But when they blended their formidable talents, as on “Otis,” performed against an American flag backdrop with a fiery snap that immediately made you realize THIS would have been the perfect opener, Jay-Z and West were a rather dynamic duo.
Throughout the 2 ½-hour show, the rappers alternately performed together and separately, making the night a rich combination of smashes and new collaborative material from their platinum-selling “Watch the Throne” release.
Backed by three keyboardists/DJs lurking in the shadows of the clean, airy stage accented by a slanted ramp and a couple of rows of flashing amber lights, the pair whipped through “Welcome to the Jungle” – accompanied by disturbing video of a cheetah catching and destroying a gazelle – and “Gotta Have It,” one of numerous songs that spotlighted Jay-Z’s jaw-dropping word-spitting skills.
West injected his trademark drama into ”Jesus Walks,” dancing sideways across the stage and sinking to his knees, while Jay-Z dodged plumes of flames during his “Public Service Announcement.”
Several times during the set, the twosome flashed grins at each other or slung an arm around the other’s shoulder, although West usually followed Jay-Z’s lead with any affectionate movements. Their enjoyment sharing the stage was obvious as they led the crowd through the refrain of “Run This Town” and chanted over the heavy, chest-rattling bass in “Monster” as more video of wild animals played behind them.
We know you’re filled with testosterone boys. It’s OK, you can lay off the metaphors a bit.
The only breather – if you can call it that – these two ever took was when they sat on stage for the lulling “New Day,” a poignant rap about fatherhood and learning from mistakes. As the pair sat side-by-side for the introspective song, followed by Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life,” they looked like a couple of buddies sitting on the stoop of a brownstone, swapping stories like childhood friends.
For the next round of solo tunes, Jay-Z smiled his way through his undeniably brilliant “Empire State of Mind,” its liquid beats sending a sizzle through the arena air.
Then it was West’s turn to test-drive the back-of-the-hall cube, which he did for his trio of “Runaway” – complete with unnecessary Auto Tune – “Heartless” and “Stronger.”
While the rising platform, glowing red for West’s spin, was certainly a visual feat, it’s impractical. With zero lighting aside from shards of laser lights, the figure performing could have been Betty White for all anyone could see. It was a cool atmospheric effect for a few minutes, but the squinting became tiresome by West’s second song atop the tower.
But the show is so rapidly paced, even the annoyances passed quickly.
It seemed a natural ending, though, when Jay-Z leaned into the light Latin beat of “Big Pimpin’,” then the lighting shifted to strobes and purple lasers for a raw, stripped version of “Gold Digger,” ending with Jay leaning into Kanye to gave him some “advice” for his gold digger…a humorous segue into “99 Problems.”
At that point, many in the crowd shifted toward the exits, not wanting to get stuck in a post-concert crush, but also fearing an early departure in case one of Atlanta’s celebrity rappers showed up (sorry – no one did).
But Jay-Z and West still had another half an hour to roll through, a trip that spanned “N- in Paris” – during which the crowd, surely tired of standing and dancing, was encouraged to “bounce” – “Made in America,” highlighted by an arena aglow with cell phone lights, and, finally, “Why I Love You.”
It was a muted finale to a show that nailed so many peaks. But maybe that was the point. Maybe Jay-Z and West didn’t want the audience to depart solely on an adrenaline high, but with a little something to chew on.
(Here’s a set list from Friday’s show. Thanks to Goldyn for filling in some blanks for me.)
By Melissa Ruggieri, Atlanta Music Scene Blog
Follow me on Twitter: @ajclifestyle
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