May 21, 2012
Live: Jay-Z & Kanye West @ O2 Arena, London. 21/05/2012
“I spoke to Michael Jackson before he passed” explained Kanye West during a rare moment of calm in his and Jay-Z‘s amped up, full-throttle set in the O2. “And he said ‘Kanye, if I’m ever not here, I want you and Jay to take the crown’,” sliding into his hit ‘Good Life’ before anyone had a chance to try and work out what the hell he was on about. Not that they cared much.
Backed by full-on pyrotechnics and a Pink Floyd-rivalling laser show, ‘Ye and Jay prove formidable protagonists in what turns out to be a quite spectacular bit of hip-hop theatre. The duo send verse after verse swimming out over a sea of camera phones, barely pausing for breath from the first notes of ‘H.A.M’ – Jay on a raised platform in the middle of the crowd, Kanye on a similar one onstage – until the house lights go up two-and-a-half hours later.
In-between, they remind us all of quite how many inimitable hits their respective catalogues contain, both together and as solo artists. Tracks from Watch the Throne – the collaborative album this tour is supporting – are elevated in the live setting; pumped up versions of ‘Otis’ and ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ performed early on, the former in front of a giant stars ‘n stripes, the latter in front of video footage of lions taking down gazelles on the African savannah – all part of the show’s pageantry.
Both dressed head-to-toe in black (Kanye, rather impractically, in all leather), it’s Jay-Z who is the business-like professional, while his partner plays the excitable, bouncing rock star full of thespian scowls and exaggerated gestures.
Jay plucks a fine selection of hits for his portions of the show, from versions of ‘U Don’t Know’ and the crowd-participating ‘Jigga What, Jigga Who’, to The Black Album classics ‘Public Service Announcement’ and ‘Dirt off Your Shoulder’.
Kanye is equally happy to please, throwing himself full-on into ‘Gold Digger’ and ‘Touch the Sky’, or falling dramatically to his knees for the last verse of ‘Jesus Walks’. He taints the night slightly when putting his auto-tune to work on ‘Runaway’, breaking the song down to deliver an elongated, robotic homage to the ladies. But when he gives a cry of “this is the best you will ever see in your lifetime” during ‘Power’, it’s easy to see past the egomaniacal bravado and concede that he might be right.
To hear two figureheads of rap endlessly discuss their respective wealth in times of such economic austerity is slightly irksome on record, but watching them fly through a set filled with some of the biggest rap hits of the last decade with effortless composure drives home their achievements as entertainers. The baying hordes in the audience were certainly well-treated; responding in kind as they dutifully put their diamonds in the sky, allowed Jay to reintroduce himself, or brushed their shoulders off on request.
The pair worked their shtick as a double-act throughout, engaging in prepared banter or helping each other on their respective verses. Both visibly enjoyed themselves during run-throughs of ‘Monster’ and a seated, composed ‘New Day’, and the fun just carried on as Rihanna stepped out for ‘Run This Town’ and ‘All of the Lights’, herself all smiles and graces behind big sunglasses.
It’s with closer ‘Niggas in Paris’ that the night peaks, however. It’s not for trivial reasons that its explosive beat is rewound and restarted several times (including three more during the encore), Jay ramping up his opening verse each time, while Kanye – having finally exhausted his dance repertoire – performed some weird, trancelike vogue-ing behind him.
As the arena emptied out, people were still whistling the track’s addictive synth line, comparing photos, and agreeing that yes, that shit was indeed cray.