Rap kings ascend thrones, exceed expectations

Jay-Z and Kanye West; two names sure to illicit some manner of opinion when uttered. Controversial, certainly, but undoubtedly great. Both have been largely considered to be among the coveted “one per cent” of hip hop’s elite. Now, as they unite behind the title Watch the Throne, they become an absolute force to be reckoned with.

Jay-Z, born Shawn Carter, into a meagre existence in the projects of Brooklyn, New York, is one of the most financially successful hip-hop artists in America, with an estimated net worth of over $450 million. He has received 13 Grammy awards to date for his musical efforts and holds the record for the most number one albums by a solo artist. Jay-Z’s most recent effort, Blueprint 3, became his eleventh number one album, breaking the record he had previously shared with Elvis Presley. As an artist and innovator, Jay-Z has hit a wall lately, providing more featured verses than tracks of his own.

Kanye West has released five solo albums, all of which have gone platinum, and has received 14 Grammy awards to date. West is one of the most influential and controversial rappers and producers in the game today, despite intermittent bouts of negative media attention. West’s 2010 release My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was adored by fans and critics alike, and rated a rare 10/10 stars by Rolling Stone magazine. But, after several instances of controversial award show appearances, interviews and over-all questionable behaviour, his personal stock was at an all time low.

On Aug. 8, 2011, Jay-Z and West released their first collaborative album, Watch the Throne, a progressive and dramatic rap album that expanded on the dense sound achieved on West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

On Wednesday and Thursday evenings, the duo brought their international tour to Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. Despite steep ticket prices (about $130 for upper bowl), they easily sold out the venue for both nights, making for a nightly attendance of some 13,000+.

Several qualities have characterized the extensive Watch the Throne tour thus far. Firstly, no one opens. Kanye and Jay take on the responsibility of the entire evenings entertainment, letting nothing out of their own hands. The rappers are confident that they have the ability to both build and maintain the energy needed to ensure an entertaining show, and rightfully so.

Secondly, there are no musical guests. In Toronto, home of friend and collaborator Drake, many were expecting a surprise appearance, but none came, and none have come at any show on the tour; not even at Madison Square Garden, in the hometown of Jay-Z.

To begin Wednesday’s performance, Jay-Z and Kanye West ascended two separate stages – giant pillars emblazoned with LCD screens showing great white sharks, panthers and rabid dogs, playing songs from Watch the Throne, including “HAM,” “Otis” and “Welcome to the Jungle.” Next, Jay-Z threw it back an era with “Nigga What, Nigga Who,” the final single from his album Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, released thirteen years ago. Jay-Z then took to the wings, leaving Kanye in front of the already frenzied crowd.

Kanyes’ first set paid homage to fan favourites’ from albums passed, including “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” “Flashing Lights” and “Jesus Walks,” the song which first catapulted him to super-stardom. “Jesus Walks” won the 2005 Grammy for best rap song, despite the fact that it plays as both a bold declaration of Christian faith and a criticism of the music industry for shying away from songs which discuss faith, as he raps “That means guns, sex, lies, video tapes/But if I talk about God my record won’t get played.”

When Jay-Z returned to the ACC stage, the two launched into performances of “Public Service Announcement,” “Diamonds are Forever” and “99 Problems.”

The next hour, which can accurately be described as mayhem, included performances of the tracks “Hard Knock Life,” “Empire State of Mind,” “Monster,” “Dirt Off Your Shoulders” and “New Day.” Before “New Day,” Jay-Z and West sat on the edge of the stage, while West described the sentimental value the song holds for him. This was a rare moment providing insight into his vulnerability and crippling insecurities.

Next came “No Church In the Wild,” in which Kanye likens himself to Jesus, again. During the performance footage of instances of violence and hatred from throughout American history were splashed on the screens above. A young boy in a Ku Klux Klan robe stared into the lens, while a military outfit donned gas masks before an attack.

The show ended with the hit “Niggas in Paris,” while fans threw bras and hats onstage. Jay pocketed a bra and West donned a Toronto Blue Jay’s fullback, as Jay Z showed his obvious disapproval beneath his own snakeskin Yankees snapback. They each signed a CD for a fan sitting front row before leaving the stage, returning for an encore of “Encore” and “Niggas in Paris” before the night came to a final close.

Watch the Throne as a collaboration has proven to be a genius career move for each Jay-Z and West. Kanye’s turbulent and emotive nature lends itself well to Jay’s confident swagger and “I’m rich” sentiments, and West undoubtedly gains a heaping of credibility as Jay-Z acknowledges him as an equal.

The endless catalogue of hits performed on Wednesday night ultimately acted as a reminder of how much solid gold these two rap kings have produced in their storied careers.

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