In my album review of Watch the Throne of August 2011, I argued that, whilst displaying stylistic inconsistencies and muddled rap-exchanges in terms of lyrical trade-offs between Ye and Jay; the album itself was a welcome display of commercial glorification and of African-American success and mastery of capitalistic music. (This is displayed on a host of occasions, most obviously in the title of the song Niggas in Paris, or when Jay raps on Murder to Excellence, “I stink of success, the new black elite.”) In the midst of dire economic turmoil, of high American unemployment, and the arguable failure of the Obama Presidency (versus the comparative success of the Tea Party) – the Throne remains secure, success remains constant, and innovation continues to dynamically represent the graft and mind-led ability that these two Goliaths of rap music display. Many shun the (seemingly) gratuitous wealth and arrogance that contemporary rap appears to represent – and it indeed has caused tension, most recently when Jay-Z attempted to create products around the Occupy movement, selling t-shirts in the aim for private profit (a glib and entertaining irony, in my opinion).
It is within this context that Jay-Z and Kanye West are currently touring. On Saturday 9th June 2012 I traveled to the O2 in Dublin and was able to witness first hand this mammoth display of egotism, riches, and talent – two royals of the hip-hop world. The show begins explosively with H.A.M. – both artists perched upon two separate elevated platforms, the performer’s throne, as it were; with the venue as their dominion and the fans as their subjects. The backing to this performance is a chaotic and colourful light-show, whilst the two artists remain dressed in all-black, “All black everything, nigga you know my fresh code.” The symbolism of dress codes such as these should not be ignored, as it forms a clear part of The Throne’s message toward social norms and institutionalised racism, “In the past if you picture events like black tie, what’s the last thing you expect to see? Black guys.”
Indeed, the show itself attempts to serve as an ironic statement towards a mixed message of monetary and social triumph, but yet a discontent towards the social system, which, whilst these two monarchically succeed, others do not. Video displays in the background often displayed scenes of animals fighting for survival; evoking clear Darwinian connotations. The clearest display of dramatic irony was when Ye and Jay stood to attention, to a video of images of war, of KKK demonstrations, and of exploding atom bombs; whilst Louis Armstrong’s voice singing What a Wonderful World penetrates these scenes with a sober, solemn tone. This mood is capitalized upon as the pair’s track No Church in the Wild is then performed, with its new video displaying scenes of violent protest against repressive and forceful police barricades. Such sobriety, again displayed in the performance of New Day, as both artists sit on steps and reflect upon parenting (both grew up in single parent households) and about challenges ahead; particularly relevant to Jay-Z now, of course.
Social statements aside, what Ye and Jay really display is material wealth, a wealth of experience, creativity, innovation and re-invention. The chemistry between the two at times appeared lacking to me, on the album, but this feeling is abruptly dashed when you witness the pair exchanging on stage. The two bring very different skill sets to bear; whether it Jay-Z’s lyrical dexterity and verbose swagger; or Kanye’s emotively driven performances and increasingly impressive artistry. That being
said, what should be taken in is the potential incoherence of underlying message, or statement, as what is important here is the very means by which this message is delivered. It simply does not always matter that some of these tracks, and parts of the performance, are brazen celebrations of material wealth and consumerism, as it is the performance and deliverance of this that is what give these two their Throne. We accept hollow messages, it seems, as long as they are impressively conveyed.
The performance on this night was an inspirational one. Jay-Z’s stature and flawless performance technique is a testament to his long career in the music industry. In comparison, Kanye did appear to have more stage time, and his music is more immediately accessible to a younger audience, or those less-inclined to rap music. For example, the majority of the crowd in Dublin did not really appear to know what they were being asked to do when Jay asked for crowd sections to chant ‘Jigga What? Jigga Who?’ as he performed his 1998 classic, Nigga Wat Nigga Who – but there was not a crowd member who did not know most of the words to Jesus Walks. This though, is a generational point as opposed to anything else. As a celebration of, “black excellence, opulence, decadence,” – the package that Watch the Throne offers as an album and as a show is exceptional, there is no question who are the hip-hop sovereigns, despite benign threats from Young Money for the accolade.