Jay-Z, Kanye West Duel for Rap Crown

Rappers Jay-Z and Kanye West havenotoriously big egos. now they have a stage show to match.

The pair’s Watch the Throne tour sets a new standard forlive hip hop and arena gigs: you’re unlikely to see anythingthis year as exciting and physically direct.

Anyone who doubts that hip hop is one of America’s greatcultural exports should see the Watch the Throne live. TheEuropean leg of the tour has started with five dates at London’sO2 Arena. the rappers will be playing there tonight andtomorrow; more European concerts follow.

It’s a big-budget show. A battery of lasers that would makea Death Star commander proud and repeated balls of fire warm thesun-starved London audience. the rapping is hotter.

Jay-Z and West start by swapping rhymes from opposite sidesof the arena. Each is atop a giant cube, the sides of which showfootage of snarling dogs and circling sharks.

Jay-Z’s rhymes are a thicket of words, ripe with razor-sharp barbs. West is lighter, his awkward honesty adding momentsof unexpected electro-pop tenderness. the combination, and theinterplay between them, is electric.

Unlike most hip-hop shows, there are no tedious interludes.Unlike most arena events, there are no dancers, props or high-concept staging just in case the crowd gets bored.

Instead, there are just two guys, their beats (apparentlytriggered by three anonymous keyboard players) and a non-stoptorrent of rhymes. Sometimes the giant screens show spectacularfootage of various big cats. mostly they display close-ups ofWest and Jay-Z rapping.

The set is a two-hour blast of hits from both rapper’scatalogs as well as much of “Watch the Throne,” the pair’srecent collaborative album.

“Who Gon Stop Me” peacocks their achievements and “Otis,”performed in front of a giant Stars and Stripes, glows withsoulful pride.

West, dressed in a black shirt, leather pants and whatlooks like a black leather skirt, throws in some dance-pop with“Stronger” and revels in the Shirley Bassey sample of “DiamondsFrom Sierra Leone.” Jay-Z wears nondescript black sportswear,shades and a baseball-cap and keeps the rhymes tight throughclassics like “U Don’t Know” and “99 Problems.”

Both prowl through West’s ludicrous “Monster.” just as thebeats and braggadocio threaten to overwhelm, the pair sitcenter-stage for an intimate rendition of “New Day,” dedicatedto “all the fathers in the house.”

A central component of hip hop is the battle in whichrappers compete to show off their skills and put down theirrivals. where the boasts bristle with machismo, the insultsinevitably will be scurrilous and puerile. Hip hop’s favoritecompound oedipal profanity is always going to sound far betterthan “nincompoop.”

The lyrics reference Rothko and Socrates, crime, blooddiamonds, religion and romance. There’s still plenty of badlanguage and arrogant macho swagger. Jay-Z boasts “what’s fiftygrand to a m**** f*** like me?” and West rejoins “You know howmany hot b**** I own?”

Hip hop started out as party music. it was how the showended, with repeated plays of “N****s in Paris,” a celebratoryfrenzy of bouncing electro and luxurious high-living.

The Watch the Throne tour continues in Europe through June22. there are shows in Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden,France, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, the U.K. and the Netherlands.

Information: http://watchthethrone.com/

What the Stars Mean:**** Excellent*** Good** Average* Poor(No stars) Worthless

(Robert Heller is a music critic for Muse, the arts andleisure section of Bloomberg News. the opinions expressed arehis own.)

Muse highlights include an interview by ManuelaHoelterhoff, Scott Reyburn on auctions, John Mariani on wine andFarah Nayeri on film from Cannes.

To contact the writer on the story:Robert Heller in London at roberthelleruk@yahoo.co.uk

To contact the editor responsible for this story:Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

Jay-Z, Kanye West Duel for Rap Crown

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