So here is the president of the United States, enjoying canapés and small talk at Daniel, chef Daniel Boulud’s gourmet restaurant just off Park Avenue, with the right touch of upscale-whorehouse decor and enough Alice Waters in the kitchen to make it the place where every Wall Street guy takes his wife on bonus night. The drill for tonight is two fund-raisers at Daniel, to be followed by an even more intimate sit-down dinner at Spike Lee’s house, before the motorcade heads uptown to the Apollo, in Harlem, where Barack Obama once lived in a ratty student apartment, less than 50 blocks but light-years away from the perfumed dining room where he is answering questions and posing for pictures and name-checking Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow. I get my chance to ask him the question of the moment, the question that everyone who has bought the album or spent $150 on a concert ticket wants answered. “I have a question I want to ask you, Mr. President,” I venture, once I catch his attention.
“Sure,” the president says.
“Kanye or Jay-Z?”
The president smiles. “Jay-Z,” he says, as if the answer should be obvious. When it comes to the most meaningful pop-cultural divide of the moment, the question of whether you prefer Kanye West or Jay-Z—the top two hip-hop artists in the world, who recently joined forces for a national mega-tour called Watch the Throne—Barack Obama is clearly a Jay-Z guy. Jay-Z is about control. Jay-Z is about success. He’s a natural-born leader. He is married to Beyoncé Knowles, the gorgeous, sugar-spun R&B star who recently joined with Michelle Obama in a public campaign against the epidemic of childhood obesity. Together, Jay and Beyoncé are worth something close to $1 billion. Jay-Z fills arenas and enunciates clearly—unlike Kanye West, who jumps onstage and interrupts during award ceremonies, cries on talk shows, and jets off to Rome to apprentice with the House of Fendi. Besides, the president’s smile says, we are at a fund-raiser in New York, which is Jay-Z’s hometown.
“Although I like Kanye,” Obama continues, with an easy smile. “He’s a Chicago guy. Smart. He’s very talented.” He is displaying his larger awareness of the question, looking relaxed, cerebral but friendly, alive to the moment, waiting for me to get to the heart of the matter.
“Even though you called him a jackass?,” I ask.
“He is a jackass,” Obama says, in his likable and perfectly balanced modern-professorial voice. “But he’s talented.” The president gives a wink, poses for a few more pictures, and then glides away to meet with the rich Manhattan lawyers in the other room, leaving behind a verdict that he intended to be funny, and also entirely deliberate: even before an audience of one, the leader of the free world is still not letting Kanye West off the hook.
Whatever you think of the many controversies he has ignited, you must admit that Kanye West is at least some kind of musical genius, ranking among the top five producers and the top five rappers of the past decade. (His singing, by contrast, is kind of a joke.) Every one of his five solo albums has gone platinum, and he has sold 30 million digital downloads of his songs, to become one of the most downloaded musical artists of all time. He has won 18 Grammys—the most of any artist in the past 10 years—while serving as a backpack-wearing icon of black nerd chic. Kanye’s power resides in his wild creativity and expressiveness, his mastery of form, and his deep and uncompromising attachment to a self-made aesthetic that he expresses through means that are entirely of the moment: rap music, digital downloads, fashion, Twitter, blogs, live streaming video. He is the first true genius of the iPhone era, the Mozart of contemporary American music, intent on using his creative and emotional gifts to express the heartbreaks and fantasies of his audience.
In addition, though, Kanye West is, according to the president of the United States—the first black president of the United States—a “jackass,” a narcissistic monster who tore a massive hole of self-regard in the American cultural quilt.
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Worse even than the president’s epithet, which he first offered on September 14, 2009, is the near-universality of his verdict, which has been echoed for years on talk shows and gossip sites across America. Most painful of all, perhaps, was the classic “Fish Sticks” episode of South Park, which portrayed Kanye as a designer shades–wearing egomaniac who is so humorless and devoid of self-awareness that he can’t comprehend a simple joke about fish sticks. Being represented as the most humor-impaired man in America by the South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker may have actually hurt more than what the president said.
What did Kanye West do to deserve all this?
I’ll tell you. Assuming, that is, you don’t follow the news or watch the talk shows, and don’t have kids, and have never heard about the Taylor Swift incident at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, where Kanye brusquely interrupted the young country-music queen’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video to announce that the award should have gone to Beyoncé, who, like everyone else in the room, was flabbergasted by Kanye’s horrifying breach of etiquette. It was a surreal moment: the eruption of the black man from the audience just as the blond white singer said, “I always dreamed about what it would be like to maybe win one of these someday, but I never actually thought it would happen.” His muscular arms bulging from a short-sleeved leather shirt he designed himself, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses that made him look like some futuristic cartoon bug, Kanye grabbed the mic and humiliated Swift—and himself, though for the first few seconds the true victim of his actions wasn’t clear.
“Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’ma let you finish,” he said. “But Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time.” He repeated: “One of the best videos of all time.” Then he gave a shrug—not an Oh, no, what have I done? shrug but a defiant Someonehad to say it shrug—and handed the mic back to Swift, at which point any thinking person had to feel sorry for the pretty young woman in the pretty white dress staring mutely at the piece of gilded hardware she had just won.
The fallout was global. Pop stars shunned Kanye. Bloggers ridiculed him. Talk-show hosts mocked him. The president of the United States called him a jackass. It was the kind of moment that could wreck even the hottest career, and Kanye went on Jay Leno’s prime-time show to apologize. “It was rude, period, and I would like to apologize to her in person,” he said. When Leno asked him what his mother, Donda West, an English professor at Chicago State University who died in a plastic surgery–related accident in 2007, would have said to him about the incident, West couldn’t answer. “Would she be disappointed in this? Would she give you a lecture?,” Leno pressed. It was a thoroughly humiliating thing for Leno to do to an artist—yet also a highly compassionate form of damage control: the host was offering up his own credibility with his audience as bail money for his guest. “Yeah,” West answered, looking utterly defeated. Then he skipped town for Japan, then on to Rome, where he spent four months as an intern for Fendi, and then on to Hawaii, where he recorded an entirely brilliant solo album called My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Kanye also decided on a new public-outreach strategy—the kind that Michael Jackson might have adopted if he had lived to see the age of Twitter. In July 2010, Kanye visited the offices of Facebook, Twitter, and Rolling Stone, in a white shirt, black tie, and shades, looking like an early-period Miles Davis, to demonstrate that he could and would henceforth communicate with his massive global audience directly, instead of through media interviews. He created a Twitter account and began using it compulsively. He addressed his fans live from South Korea by talking through his MacBook using a protocol called Ustream. “That’s a fur I wanna get,” he said, holding one laptop up to the camera of another and flipping through his album of thousands of images. “That’s a unicorn. That’s a naked girl walking down the street with wings.” His aesthetic, he explained, was made up of “things that I dream and I see and I felt since I was a child, from reading comic books to being in love with paintings to going to art school.”
Nothing helped, in part because both the Taylor Swift outburst and the presidential condemnation were already part of Kanye’s well-established reputation for script-breaking moments of petulance and hurt, the most memorable of which was the time he looked into the camera during a 2005 telethon to aid Hurricane Katrina victims and cast halting, racially loaded aspersions at whatever targets came to mind—George W. Bush, the federal government, the news media. “If you see a black family, it says they’re looting. See a white family, it says they’re looking for food,” he said, before suggesting that the government was shooting black people in the streets of New Orleans because “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Bush took this outburst as a personal affront—an affront so severe, in fact, that it overshadowed other, seemingly more notable and troubling aspects of his presidency. “It was a disgusting moment,” Bush told Matt Lauer in a televised interview promoting his 2010 memoir, Decision Points, claiming that Kanye’s comments ranked in his mind as the lowest moment of his presidency, worse even than the criticism he took for his handling of the Iraq War.
So it is worth noting, then, that while Kanye West is a next-level producer and rapper, a high-impact tweeter, a public consumer of chicken fettuccine, and whatever else he might be, he is also something different from a political leader or celebrity pitchman. Kanye’s emotional landscape may be troubled, but it is also a unified whole, which is the mark of any great artist. He is a petulant, adolescent, blanked-out, pained emotional mess who toggles between songs about walking with Jesus and songs about luxury brands and porn stars. Raised by his college-professor mother in Chicago, and spending summers in Atlanta with his father, a former Black Panther turned newspaper photographer turned Christian marriage counselor, Kanye united hard-core rap and the more self-aware and sophisticated inward style that had evolved in the early 1990s.
Kanye West is an artist, but this made little difference when he tried to explain himself, as he did in a first-person apologia he wrote for the rap magazine XXL, in the hopes of convincing his fans that his weird behavior was not simply a symptom of terminal egomania. Yes, he’d behaved badly, but he did so because he cared too much. “When I did things like [the Taylor Swift episode] or the ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people’ moment, it wasn’t a matter of being selfish,” he wrote. “It’s more like I was being selfless—that I would risk everything to express what I felt was the truth.” And still, President Obama calls him a jackass.
Watch the Throne—the album and the tour—was an effort to repair the damage. His stage partner, Jay-Z (né Shawn Carter), makes the star-generating machinery work for him financially, emotionally, and artistically by projecting a highly controlled persona. Kanye’s gifts lie in the opposite direction, and it was hard not to worry that he would emerge from the tour having learned to imitate some of Jay-Z’s gifts but having crippled or abandoned his own.
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.
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.’”
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