Review: Jay-Z and Kanye West at Staples Center
If you were to transcribe the hundreds, if not thousands, of lines delivered by rappers Jay-Z and Kanye West during their “Watch the Throne” concert Sunday night at Staples Center, the resulting tome -- crammed with memorable lines, narrative strands, footnotes, quips, odes and epiphanies -- would invite microscopic scrutiny.
The grand and epic show, the first of three nights at the arena, featured more than three dozen songs, including the hit single "... in Paris,” which they returned to at least half a dozen times in a grand finale, a testament to the vitality not only of two of the most magnetic rappers to ever make the music, but also of hip-hop as a cultural force whose intricate constructions have served as the musical blueprint of a generation. With each rhyme, the stack of verbiage piled higher, and thousands of people recited every word to every verse like Baptists at a Bible retreat.
“Black cards, black cars/Black-on-black, black broads/Whole lotta money in a black bag/Black strap, you know what that’s for?” wondered Jay-Z during a heavy-as-a-boulder version of “Who Gon Stop Me.”
West offered back-up in the form of a taunt worthy of Cassius Clay: “Who gon stop me, huh?,” repeating it twice before moving into a remarkable -- but unprintable -- 16 bars delivered in Pig Latin.
The two were touring in support of their 2011 collaboration, “Watch the Throne.”
Jay-Z, born and raised in Brooklyn, and West, reared in Chicago, have worked together for more than a decade, first when the Midwesterner was an upstart producer and the New Yorker had established himself not only as Jay-Z, but also as Jigga, Hova and a host of other monikers that have since become shorthand for lyrical genius. West soon broke out on his own, and has since become one of the most important (and controversial) voices on the pop music scene.
Combined, that’s a lot of ego, and at times it took two stages to contain them both. The show was constructed as a tag-team song swap on a grand scale, with the two lobbing verses at each other. With each memorable line, hook, beat and rhyme, their impact on American musical culture grew larger: “99 Problems,” “Jesus Walks,” “Hard Knock Life,” “Gold Digger,” “All of the Lights,” “Izzo,” “Public Service Announcement,” “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” -- they played them all (well, at least portions of them all) and dozens more, and combined them with a grand display of equally enormous proportions -- requisite fireballs included.
Two massive projection screens pumped images of the pair performing on the stage below, close-ups of a menacing West, sweat dotting his face, his eyes squinting, silver grills on his bottom teeth that sparkled when he sneered. He also wore a leather kilt and leggings that lesser men could never pull off.
Jay-Z, Yankees cap pulled down low on his head, walked across the stage with casual confidence, grabbing his crotch while perfectly crafted rhymes flowed effortlessly out of his mouth, with Coltrane’s melodic nuance and Charlie Parker’s winged creations.
In addition to projecting the rappers’ every movement, the screens behind them also ran shots of predatory animals: Lions, sharks, bears, hawks, black panthers, tigers, cougars were all shown prowling their habitats menacingly. At one point, a large cat chased down an antelope, caught it and killed it while the rappers walked the stage below.
Despite the concert's length (it lasted about 2½ hours), this was a Cliffs Notes version, consisting of bits and pieces of tracks from throughout the pair’s careers, both as solo artists and as longtime collaborators. West has in the last few years transformed himself into a consummate performer, one with a penetrating demeanor but also a respectable fearlessness -- one that prompts him to dance, wear skirts more often found at leather bars, and channel a creative energy as dedicated and spiritual as a Duke Ellington suite.
Jay-Z owned a stage not with impressive moves but with sheer implied power. As he ascended on a riser during “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” there was little question about who the chairman of this board was: “From Bricks to Billboards, from grams to Grammies/The O's to opposite, Orphan Annie/You gotta pardon Jay, for selling out the Garden in a day/I'm like a young Marvin in his hey.”
Those complaining that their kids never read books should try memorizing all the lyrics to “The Blueprint” sometime, or sit down with “Watch the Throne” and listen to the whole thing while admiring the sheer craftsmanship with which West and Jay-Z work their magic. It's a wonder to behold -- and a throne well worth watching.
-- Randall Roberts
Photos: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times