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?
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Watch the Throne initially suffered as musical theater in that it failed to resolve the three-hour dialectic between the egos and back catalogs of rap’s two biggest stars. Ending the show with “Encore,” as the stars did on the first stretch of the tour, anointed Jay-Z as the winner by default. But a solution evolved that put both men on an equal footing, which in itself was a huge victory for Kanye: they ditched “Encore” and instead closed each show with “Niggas in Paris,” performed twice, three times in a row, and more, a practice that became the hallmark of the tour, the one moment when the interplay between the two men as artists rather than as mega gate attractions shone through. In Miami, they inaugurated the new ending by performing “Niggas in Paris” four times in a row, in front of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James and an ebullient, hugely pregnant Beyoncé Knowles. In Boston, Kanye and Jay closed the show with “Niggas in Paris” six times in a row, shouting “Again!” after each rendition. In Detroit, they did it seven times. Pittsburgh and Kansas City merited a mere five “Niggas” each.

The Kansas City show is notable because it’s a warm-up for Chicago. If there’s one stop on the tour where Kanye can pull even with Jay-Z, it will be the night he’s the hometown favorite. Both performers are giving about 70 percent, which seems fair enough for Kansas City on a Tuesday night. Still, the crowd here, unlike the crowds on the East Coast, is clearly enamored with Kanye.

Now Kanye is ready to do “All of the Lights,” and again he stops the track after the first beats, demanding that all of the lights be turned on. Then he feels bad. “The light man has a name. His name is Steve,” he says, half teasing and half apologizing for making the man the butt of a running joke. The audience takes the cue: “Stevie, do your job!” Kanye smiles. “I want people to get what they paid for!” he exclaims. Saving his voice for Chicago, Kanye lets the backing tracks carry the load in his last few songs. “Get up on your chairs, we want to see you,” Jay-Z urges at the end of the second or third chorus of “Niggas in Paris.” The show is done by 11:20, a remarkably early night, but the crowd leaves happy. “That was worth every bit of my money,” says a large middle-aged black man in a Chiefs jacket, as he climbs toward the exit. The girl ahead of him squeals, “They did ‘Niggas in Paris’ five times.”

The United Center in Chicago is a massive stone-faced arena, an apparent homage to the glory days of Soviet architecture. (James Dolan and the guys at Goldman Sachs would hate this place.) The Bulls’ MVP point guard, Derrick Rose, shows up exactly on time—a hard habit to break, even though the concert won’t truly begin for two hours and the arena is three-quarters empty—and he makes his way toward the stage, surrounded by audience members with cameraphones. It’s been a while since the United Center had a makeover, and the Bulls’ and Blackhawks’ championship banners hang from the rafters near the old-school nosebleed luxury boxes. The United Center is a much more raw and raucous place than the Garden, which in my memory feels like a cocktail party. Chicagoans smoke so much weed at concerts, or at this concert at least, that by the start of the second hour, everyone in the house is high. No one seems to mind my Yankees cap, although Jay swaps his for a Bulls cap halfway through the show.

As Kanye and Jay kick into gear on “Gotta Have It,” I finally recognize the James Brown sample that Kanye is using—a bare snippet of “My Thang.” It’s a sex song with sinewy-sweet, insistent rhythms and a knock-’em-dead vocal from the Godfather of Soul. The two-and-a-half-second sample that Kanye has woven into his new song is in a way a tribute to his own gift for economy. It shows that the same producer who can mix 11 different voices in the studio version of “All of the Lights” and clear the rights to half of “Try a Little Tenderness” at God knows what cost can also pinch a dollar when he needs to, and use a note of someone else’s voice as a single element in his own collage. It’s also a sign of how bleak this branch, at least, of black popular music has become since the days of James Brown, who embodied the sensual urgency of right now, baby—a far cry from the cold-eyed tales of drugs, ego, paranoia, and high-end luxury goods being retailed onstage. “Squeeze me, hold me, roll me, make me scream, make me feel, gimme my thang” was an urgent plea for sex, but the warmth of the music spoke of an even more elemental need for human connection. All that’s left now is a harder-edged version of the last phrase, in which the need for human connection has been canceled out. Whatever faults he may have as a person, Kanye is preternaturally self-aware. The sad, attenuated, one-note version of Brown’s lyric haunting the coked-out beat is the point of the song.

The second show in Chicago is on the night the Grammy nominations are announced. Kanye is up for seven awards: Song of the Year, Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, Best Rap Performance, Best Rap Song (twice), and Best Rap Album (twice, for Watch the Throne and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). But what Kanye will notice is that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which in the minds of most music obsessives may be the greatest album of the past 10 years, was not nominated for Album of the Year. For a man who is himself obsessed with awards shows, and who worked incredibly hard to produce a true album in an age of iTunes singles, the omission has to hurt. “This song just got nominated for Song of the Year, by the way,” he announces onstage, before “All of the Lights.” He pauses before launching into the familiar comic routine: “I want Chi-town to get what they paid for.” The joke is an effort to subvert his own personal script of perfectionism and petulance, but it’s too obvious, and for me, seeing it over and over in city after city has actually become depressing.

Nonetheless, at home in Chicago, Kanye seems relaxed, content to show off his easy craft and intelligence. “I told Jay, Chi-town live-er than New York!” he says near the end of the show, and then his face brightens, his smile shining through the glistening layer of sweat that alarms audiences at nearly every stop on the tour. (Jay-Z barely sweats at all.) Jay looks happy too, fine with playing second fiddle for the night in his friend’s hometown.

The “Niggas in Paris” routine that closes out the show is now a practiced piece of stage business, but the version here is particularly inspired. Jay enjoys it, because it’s a new way to sell a song. “I got to tell you this,” Jay says, looking out at the crowd. “We went to Boston. They took it to five,” referring to the number of encores they did of the song. “Just telling you the facts,” he says casually. “The last show,” he says, untruthfully, “we took it to seven.” Tonight, in Chicago, they actually do go to seven.

“That’s a record! That’s a tie!,” Jay teases, as if he is prepared to go home right now.

“Hold up, Mr. Carter!,” Kanye shouts, using Jay’s birth name as a sign of their intimacy. “I think Chi-town want the record.”

“Y’all going to take that record?,” Jay-Z says, to loud cheers and screams. Then he pauses. “We got to make this shit look right. We can’t give up the record unless it’s deserved.” The crowd screams again, and Jay and Kanye go for eight. “Let’s go! Let’s go!” they shout together over the heads of the ecstatic audience already moving to the beat. It’s “Niggas in Paris”! Eight times! It is in this moment that the genius of Kanye West, pop star in trouble, comes through to me most clearly: by repeating one song over and over, Kanye turns it from a heavily produced studio track on a collaborative album into a moment of exhilarating free-form abstract expression that allows him to stand side by side onstage with Jay-Z, trading verses as friends, while using the bigger star as an expression of his own sensibility. “Niggas in Paris” is a Kanye joint.

During the tour, I see plenty of moments like this across America, moments that happen once and never happen again, or don’t happen in exactly the same way. New Orleans is the blackest stop by far, with the poorest-looking audience—fans of all ages who spent their rent money on tickets and dressed up for the occasion, in cheap sparkly skintight gold and black dresses, work shirts, cable-knit college sweaters and oversize sunglasses, team jackets, vests and ties, gray suits and soft black Borsalino hats, like the pages of a catalog of the past 40 years of street-level fashion. Jay-Z looks out into the crowd and seems surprised, and then happy. The arena feels darker, because the skin of the people inside is darker, and because New Orleans is a poor city, so it skimps on the lights. “This thing feel good,” Kanye says, smiling, after one of his songs. Jay-Z is smiling too, happy to see black faces near the stage. New Orleans is easily the best show I see on the tour, and merits seven renditions of “Niggas in Paris,” even though no one famous is in the audience.

In Las Vegas, Jay-Z stays at Steve Wynn’s Encore (of course), while Kanye stays at Skylofts at the MGM Grand, which is hosting the show. While the rapport between the two men was never bad, it has warmed up considerably since the Garden. Kanye shows a new self-discipline and restraint; he’s learned to take energy from the crowd the way Jay does, and to punch his lines in a way that resonates in a large arena. Now harnessed, Kanye’s operatic emotionalism is the perfect counterpoint to Jay’s tightly controlled rock-star energy, and by Vegas the two men have the act down pat.

Standing next to me on the floor are a black mom and her son, who is 13 at most, droopy-eyed in a red hoodie. As Jay and Kanye head into their third encore of “Niggas in Paris,” the mother is still standing, and resisting the urge to hold her son tight, having allowed him to stay up past his bedtime to see the gods. Donda West confessed that she used to buy tickets to concerts that Kanye was attending so she could keep an eye on him, but never told her son she was there.

“I think, th-th-th-th-th-think, they want to go home,” Kanye stutters, after the fifth rendition of “Niggas.” Jay demurs, but Kanye shakes his head. “Nah, Jay,” he says, teasing the crowd. “I think they ready to go.” The two men launch into the song again. Lightning flashes against simulated clouds, until the song fades out for the sixth and final time.

In Los Angeles, Kanye departs from the script for a full minute and a half, which is by far his longest nonmusical departure on the entire tour. “I was thinking about suicide three years ago,” he tells the crowd in the Staples Center. Two months from now, the Grammy Awards will be held here. He will win four, a respectable enough achievement, which will be entirely overshadowed by Whitney Houston’s death and by Adele’s sweep of the awards. Neither Kanye nor Jay-Z will attend the ceremony.

It is part of Kanye West’s job to tell people the truth about himself, just like it is part of his job to make great songs. “And now having the most Grammy nominations. I told you the truth,” he announces to the audience at the Staples Center. “People always tell you, ‘Be humble. Be humble.’ When was the last time someone told you to be amazing? Be great! Be great! Be awesome! Be awesome!”

Kanye and Jay do “Niggas in Paris” eight times in a row in Los Angeles. With each new repetition, the song sounds more like a mantra. The more I think about the tour, the more remarkable Kanye’s accomplishment seems, as does the risk he takes by appearing onstage with Jay-Z so many nights in a row in such a tightly scripted setting. His demand for more lights before performing “All of the Lights” is a self-abnegating bit of theater, in which he makes fun of what is actually interesting about his artistic persona. Repeating “Niggas in Paris” over and over again is something else—expressive, emotive, and over-the-top. The impulse to turn a rap song with a good beat into something that actually feels like art is both abstract and liberating for Kanye, for Jay-Z, and for the audience. Anyone who can use Jay-Z as a prop and make him like it—and make the rest of us like it, too—can do anything he wants.

After the ninth and final, record-breaking rendition of “Niggas in Paris,” Jay-Z sees fit to apologize to the sweaty, exhausted L.A. crowd. “I’m sorry if this is your first concert,” he says before the lights come on. “It’s all downhill from here.”

Upon my return back east, I pay a visit to Rakim, the humble, soft-spoken introvert with a uniquely dark and mesmerizing voice who is generally regarded as the most influential rapper alive. In 1987, when he was 19 years old, Rakim released a record with the DJ Eric B., Paid in Full, on which he invented the more artful and interior form of rap that Kanye West has since made his own. He now lives in a mansion in the woods of Connecticut, like an urban samurai in exile, surrounded by football mementos, history books, and Muslim texts. It seems fair to say that Rakim is the conscience of rap; he knows more about the music, and has thought about it more deeply, than any cultural critic or historian.

Rakim admires Kanye as an artist who can create new beats and rub them up against samples scavenged from 50 years of American popular music. “You’ve really got to appreciate an artist that’s really outspoken and feels like his music can change the world,” he explains, adding that he is impressed by the way Kanye’s sensibility has become more complex and thoughtful over time, even as his genius as a producer has continued to grow. “He’s living hard and he’s maturing now.”

Yet Rakim is also bothered by the “luxury rap” that Kanye and Jay-Z are promoting. He grew up in a working-class suburban town on Long Island, he tells me, where the first generation of New York rappers, including the likes of Melle Mel and the Cold Crush 4, seemed like impossibly distant and heroic figures. At the same time, he continues, the fantasies they created in their rhymes were shared with their audience, not alienating. “Even when you think of what the Sugarhill Gang was saying—‘after school, I take a dip in my pool’—he had no pool, he had no Cadillac, he didn’t have a lot of things he was speakin’ on.” Rakim worries that the enormous rift between the rap audience and millionaire rappers who rhyme about Gulfstream jets is robbing the music of inventiveness and joy. “It’s more like, ‘Look what I got’ or ‘You ain’t got what I got’ or ‘You got to get what I got,’” he says. “It’s making the listener a little envious of what’s going on, and it’s almost demeaning.”

When I tell Rakim about my earlier encounter with President Obama, he smiles. Unlike the president, Rakim says he prefers Kanye to Jay-Z. He stops himself for a moment, and then looks sad. “It’s good that the president knows about Kanye, but to have to call him a jackass?” he says, leaning forward in his chair. “He should be a little more focused … I mean, that exposure could have been ‘Yeah, Kanye, he’s a very interesting person.’ Instead of ‘He’s a jackass.’”

David Samuels is a regular contributor to The Atlantic.
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David Samuels is a regular contributor to The Atlantic.

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