American Mozart

Intense, emotional, and frequently out of control, the hip-hop superstar Kanye West allowed his antics to turn him into a national joke and to earn him the criticism of two American presidents. Would a massive concert tour with his friend and rival Jay-Z offer the troubled rapper a taste of redemption—or disaster?

What can be said about Jay-Z, aside from the fact that he is the highest-earning rapper in America, if not in the entire history of the world? Barack Obama likes Jay-Z, whose nicknames include “Jigga” and “Hova” (which is short for “Jehovah” and is often further shortened to “Hov”). Eight years older than Kanye, Jay granted the younger man his first taste of fame as the producer of five tracks on one of Jay’s defining albums, The Blueprint, including, most famously, the music for the 2001 hit “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” which charts Jay’s progress from crack dealer to godlike rapper whose ego rests on a solid Cartesian foundation that negates any possibility of rejection or doubt (“he who does not feel me / is not real to me / so poof!”).

Unlike Kanye West, Jay-Z shows little need to communicate with his audience. Where Kanye’s music is an organic whole, with the raps inseparable from the backing tracks, Jay-Z’s vocal flow can be easily detached and set to other music—a quality that was put on display in The Grey Album, for which the producer Danger Mouse combined Jay’s TheBlack Album with music from the Beatles’ TheWhite Album, creating what was arguably Jay-Z’s finest record.

It didn’t take Jay’s genius—which combines his true excellence as a rapper with an incredible nose for where the money is in the rapidly evolving music business—to turn Kanye’s damaged-goods status to their mutual advantage. In becoming the most profitable rapper in history (not to mention a music executive and fashion mogul), Jay-Z had begun to appear to his fans as the face of the machine, a force so sober and implacable that he sucked the fun out of his own music. Marrying Beyoncé—a ray of sunshine, with a voice like an angel, and also, in Jay’s boast, the hottest chick in the game—was the final nail in the coffin of the idea that Jay-Z might be fun to be around if you weren’t also ridiculously rich and successful.

To seem fresh again, Jay needed the leavening influence of a sideman like Kanye, also known as “’Ye,” “Yeezy,” and “Kanye Titta”—a slurred version of the words Kanye to the, which the rapper spoke at the beginning of his first hit song, in 2004, “Through the Wire,” which told the true-life story of how the aspiring star fell asleep at the wheel of his Lexus and woke up in Cedars Sinai hospital with half his jaw lodged in the back of his throat. He rapped the story three weeks after the accident, in highly original rhymes delivered with his jaw wired shut. The accident occupies the triumph-over-adversity space in Kanye’s biography that being a former crack dealer occupies in Jay-Z’s. Kanye embodied a more emotionally blown-open mode of existence, and relished playing the role of Jay’s wide-eyed little brother and boundary-pusher—“The Lyor Cohen of Dior Homme,” as he billed himself on the single “Devil in a New Dress,” adding, “That’s Dior Homme, not Dior, homie.”

Lyor Cohen, it should be noted, is the North American chairman of Warner Music, who, back when he ran Island Def Jam, acquired Jay-Z’s Roc-a-Fella label, thus boosting the rapper into the higher ranks of moguldom. When I visited him in his office, Cohen told me that Jay-Z’s decision to collaborate with Kanye indicated Jay’s great sense of timing and relentless focus on quality. “Kanye is a voyeur, experimenter, massive risk-taker,” he told me. “Not to say Jay isn’t, but not to the level that Kanye is.”

The collaboration of the two rap titans led first to an album, immodestly titled Watch the Throne and featuring a gilded cover by Riccardo Tisci, creative director for Givenchy, the French fashion house. Its 12 tracks of “luxury rap” are uneven, though touched by moments of undoubted excellence and backed by soul-stirring samples of greats like Otis Redding and James Brown (the rights to which surely cost more money than most rappers will ever see in their lifetime). In every way, the critics agreed, the album is a monument to excess, the sonic equivalent of a $10 million bat mitzvah. “Shit sounds like niggas doin aerobics on a magical cloud of daisies,” wrote one blogger, who compared Kanye’s production on tracks like “No Church in the Wild” and “Made in America” to something that might accompany an episode of The Smurfs. The album’s hit, “Otis,” offers a sample of Redding’s karaoke classic “Try a Little Tenderness” that goes on for so long that the stars actually got away with listing Redding as a featured performer on the song. The album has enough enjoyable stuff, like the frenzied “That’s My Bitch” and “Gotta Have It” and the genre-obliterating “Niggas in Paris,” which combined a hard club beat with fashionista flair, bathroom-stall sex, humor and nonsense, and echoes of Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. All that, plus the pleasing spectacle of two superstars subordinating their massive egos long enough to share the mic.

Watch the Throne dropped in August, and was followed by a 26-city North American tour. Jay-Z’s ambitions were relatively straightforward: to repay part of a rumored nine-figure advance he had received several years earlier from the mega-concert promoter LiveNation. The stakes for Kanye were more complicated: Could he quash his instinct to respond to situations emotionally in order to collaborate with an even bigger, and much more carefully controlled, star? Would his effort to redeem himself as a popular artist destroy what was most creative and compelling about his art? The greatest-ever rap tour in America and the hottest ticket of the fall concert season would answer these questions starting on October 28, 2011, in Atlanta, and proceeding from there along the East Coast, from Greensboro to Baltimore to Philadelphia to Washington to East Rutherford, New Jersey, and on to New York.

Madison Square Garden is the world’s most intimate large arena, with its inverted, gleaming-gold Mayan-sundial ceiling and state-of-the-art sound system with multiple Cheeto-like curls of high-end woofers and tweeters hanging over the stage—all courtesy of James Dolan, a bumptious heir who genuinely seems to enjoy music. The cool kids of NYC, the bankers and record-industry peeps, are here on the floor, with the legal secretaries and Verizon technicians and college-age hipsters seated above. Jay-Z’s public image may be as a human cash machine, but the people of his hometown know him better as a man of the people who just happened to grow insanely, otherworldly rich. Jay is going to kill it tonight, says Allison, a raven-haired Irish special-ed teacher from the Bronx who, like plenty of others here, has a Jay-Z story to tell, in this case about a 1990s nightclub called the Tunnel from which her friend was ejected one cold winter night, only to be rescued by none other than Jay-Z, who was driving by in a limo. “Don’t worry about it,” Jay told him. “I used to get thrown out of clubs all the time.” He took the kid out with him and then dropped him off back at the Tunnel at 4 a.m., just as his friends were coming out. When I suggest that no one in Chicago has a story like that about Kanye, Allison turns up her nose. In her mind, she says, Kanye doesn’t even rank as an asshole. “Donald Trump is an asshole. But he owns it. He has swagger,” she explains. “Kanye West is just a jerk.”

As it happens, I have already seen two stops on the tour, including last night’s show, across the river at the Meadowlands. When Kanye is onstage, he appears to lose momentum in the face of Jay-Z’s effortless mastery of the language of arena rap, his ability to project his lyrical persona in short punchy phrases and hand gestures. This, despite the fact that Jay has generously structured the show in such a way as to break up and bury his enormous back catalog of sing-along hits, the 20 or so songs that ticket buyers all know by heart.

Because the Garden is so cozy, the stagecraft works especially well here. The show begins with two competing stages, the rappers separated by a sea of people, as they hurl rhymes at each other across a distance the length of a basketball court. “We need everybody in the Garden to lose their minds,” Jay demands, and then the stages begin to rise, two lit-up cubes with video screens on the sides featuring snarling pit bulls. “Everybody put your hands up, right now,” Jay commands in a martial cadence, as the dogs are succeeded by sharks swimming in a tank. The rappers launch into “Who Gon Stop Me.” Jay-Z has come here to celebrate his own fame in front of a hometown audience. Kanye, meanwhile, does damage control on the Katrina and Taylor Swift incidents with lines like “Heard Yeezy was racist / well, I guess that’s on one basis / I only like green faces”—evoking rap’s traditional money-hungry themes while also suggesting that Kanye West is an alien: in addition to a weird leather kilt, he is wearing a T-shirt that shows his face transformed into that of a monster with metallic fangs.

When Jay needs energy, he elicits cheers from the crowd, and then feeds off their adulation in a highly disciplined way, like a big-league athlete. Kanye can tolerate the crowd’s energy for shorter periods of time, before retreating back into his private headspace.

Watching the two millionaires trade sophisticated rhymes is a lesson in something more than contemporary rap’s quasi-Talmudic levels of complexity. If Jay-Z trumpets his billionaire lifestyle, Kanye is the voice of the trickle-down effect, the kid who pays for his $400 Gucci loafers with $20 bills. He buys into the national dream of high-end consumption, while also maintaining a critical distance that allows him to create rhymes and characters that his audience of aspiring consumers can identify with.

That these are the two choices being presented to the audience is a sign of a social division that didn’t exist a decade ago, at least not in such stark terms. You can also see it in Dolan’s latest renovation of the Garden. One of the hallmarks of the old arena was the corporate luxury boxes’ location way up in the rafters, more or less level with the nosebleed section, where the kids from Harlem and Queens sat with their $5 tickets. The social meaning of this arrangement was legible to every New Yorker from early childhood: the city belonged to the middle and upper-middle classes, who were the true fans. The rich were suckers, paying for their desire for insulation from ordinary life by sitting in $5 seats surrounded by glass. Dolan’s main innovation in the new Garden was to add floor boxes, which pushed the average season-ticket holder farther from the floor while giving the best seats in the house to Goldman Sachs.

Jay and Kanye herald a moment in which broad-based institutions have crumbled and a small number of super-individuals have been set free to soar, whether in finance, law, sports, or entertainment. The disintegration of the music business’s corporate structure under the onslaught of new technologies like the iPhone has empowered a handful of individual moneymakers at the expense of everyone else, a situation that has led to the rapid decline of music itself. Any meaningful connections between the newly mega-rich stars and their fans have been severed.

Those same iPhones illuminate the Garden like the cigarette lighters of yesteryear. There is the real Kanye West on the stage, with a giant close-up of his sweaty face projected above, and there are thousands of tiny Kanyes dancing and rapping in the palms of the audience: it’s the Watch the Phone tour, I realize, a weird, technologically mediated experience that makes the concert at once more intimate and more distant. The future of music is contained in these devices—handheld portals offering distant stars with $300,000 Maybachs a startlingly immediate way to reach an audience with whom they have almost nothing in common. Watching Jay-Z move on the small screen reveals a spare vocabulary of gestures—he touches his inner thigh with three fingers to emphasize his manhood, and then points out at the audience with his fingers portraying the barrel of a gun.

“They call me Hov,” Jay-Z says, as the Garden erupts in cheers. “Y’all already know where I’m from.” The star-spangled bandanna in his left back pocket is part of his insistence on the essential Americanness of his rise from the street corner to the boardroom, a shout-out to the gangbangers and maybe even to the city’s gay population, proof of his ability to appropriate anything and everything. The frame of his persona is simply that strong. “Jay to the Z!” he proclaims. In the end, the boasts are more important than the rhymes, and the largest boast he can offer at this point is simply his name.

He passes the mic to Kanye, who goes into the hit “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” from his third album, Graduation. It was his first street anthem: defiant, defensive, insecure, moody, self-defeating, and self-aware. Like many other great rap songs, the lyrics fill in the imaginative space opened up by the first two lines:

I had a dream I can buy my way to heaven

When I awoke, I spent that on a necklace

It’s the first Kanye song I’ve heard that has true arena-rap resonance, with moody synths and a headstrong chorus that includes an ending couplet that could not have been dropped by any other rapper:

Wait ’til I get my money right,

Then you can’t tell me nothing, right?

By inflecting the word right in such different ways, he actually makes the rhyme work, which is just one of the 27 things that he can do better than any other rapper alive.

Jay-Z, in a sweatshirt and baseball cap on the opposite cube, crosscut by lasers, looks to be made of platinum. He is iconic, the rap version of the jumpman figure on a pair of Nike sneakers, the Michael Jordan of rap. “I got a million ways to get it,” he chants, rapping the theme from the last Batman movie. “Somebody bring me back some money, please.”

Now it’s Kanye’s turn again. After the upbeat “Good Life,” he cues the beginning of “All of the Lights,” the marching-band single from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Then he frowns. “Cut!” he yells. The crowd murmurs, unsure whether this is a screw-up or part of the show. Kanye is bothered by the lighting. “We in New York City right now,” he says. “Anybody who late on they rent, to buy tickets, or can’t buy some shit they needed, in order to buy tickets. I need to see all of the motherfucking lights!” More lights come on. The crowd screams, and the song begins again. It’s all part of the show, a goof on Kanye’s propensities both for perfectionism and for unscripted fits. I watch the same moment happen at every one of the nine concerts I attend across the country, and the crowd loves it every time. Kanye is so famous for these moments, in fact, that not one of the music writers reviewing the shows gets that it’s a shtick. When the lights come on, Kanye spins around and shows a smile as wide as Broadway. It’s part of the script, but it’s real to him. Standing at the very edge of the stage, he starts taking energy from the crowd.

Restraining order, can’t see my daughter

Her mother, brother, grandmother, hate me in that order

Public visitation, we met at Borders

Told her she take me back, I’ll be more supportive

“All of the Lights” is ostensibly about a player who slapped his girlfriend and wound up in prison. But it also functions nicely as a metaphor for his season in purgatory—Kanye’s “daughter” being his art, or his audience, or maybe they are both the same to him. A truism of the pop-culture star’s life is that it’s not genius if it doesn’t sell, because art that doesn’t connect with its audience can’t be great.

Jay eases into “Big Pimpin’,” followed by some wince-inducing banter with Kanye. “I told myself, ‘When I get my money, I’m gonna try some of that “Big Pimpin’” shit,’” Kanye exclaims, playing the role of the kid in Chicago who smoked weed on his couch and longingly watched Jay-Z videos, imagining that his hour would come. Kanye West was in fact that kid, but this doesn’t make the canned dialogue sound any less canned, especially when you hear it every night. What’s most interesting about these moments, which are repeated verbatim on every stop of the tour, is that Kanye never goes off script. He is famous for emotional outbursts and rambling excursions, he hates scripts—but he likes being a pop-culture genius even more. That’s what’s at stake, and he is disciplined enough to do what needs to be done.

The crowd starts chanting “Hova! Hova!,” which Jay basks in for just long enough before trying out a countervailing “Kanye! Kanye!” chant that never really catches fire.

“What time is it now?,” Jay-Z asks. “11:47.” He pauses. “What’s my motherfucking name?” he shouts. “Jigga!” the crowd responds, and he launches into rap hit No. 23 of the night. There is something numbing about Jay-Z’s hits. He’s got so many of them, with so many original flows, each burnished to a high sheen, and each conveying the same emotional content. Kanye is more like David Foster Wallace, scribbling his funny long sentences inside our brains with those thrilling drops in tone. He raps the lyrics to “All Falls Down”:

But I ain’t even gon act holier than thou

’Cause fuck it, I went to Jacob with 25 thou

Before I had a house and I’d do it again

Cause I wanna be on 106 and Park pushing a Benz

I wanna act ballerific like it’s all terrific

I got a couple past-due bills, I won’t get specific

For an encore, the two men perform “Encore,” a huge hit that Jay wrote at exactly the right moment in his career, when his backlist was already so thick with hits that no one would question the need for a song with this title. “Is that all the noise you gonna make?” he inquires, after a couple more hits. As midnight strikes, the two rap heroes stand together on the same stage for a moment of shared adulation and glory, before heading off to Fort Lauderdale and then Miami.

“Peace and love, New York City,” Jay calls out, tipping his hat to the crowd. And then the lights come up, and they’re gone.

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David Samuels is a regular contributor to The Atlantic.

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