By Wesley Case, The Baltimore Sun
1:05 AM EDT, November 2, 2011
The best moment of Tuesday night's 'Watch the Throne' tour stop at 1st Mariner Arena — and there were plenty of candidates — came 17 songs in, when Jay-Z and Kanye West ditched the flashy, multi-piece set and sat down, side by side, like old friends on a stoop. As an Auto-Tuned Nina Simone sample of "Feeling Good" poured through the speakers, Jay-Z wiped his brow after removing his snakeskin Yankee snapback.
Kanye announced that this song, "New Day," was his favorite from "Watch the Throne" and its opening verse was his "favorite ever." As he began rapping "And I'll never let my son have an ego," the two rappers looked more like old friends reconnecting than two of the biggest stars in pop music. When Jay advised his unborn son to "look a man dead in his eyes," Kanye mouthed the words to himself. The two stayed seated as "New Day" segued into the old Jay standard "Hard Knock Life." As the entire crowd rapped with Jay, so did Kanye. He was a fan like us.
It was little moments like these — in between soaring hits on hits on hits — that made the year's biggest concert exceed its hype. Yes, the smashes sounded fantastic: "Big Pimpin'" with Jay performing Pimp C's verse a capella, Kanye's "Flashing Lights" and Jay's "Empire State of Mind" sound custom-made for an arena. But it was those quick snapshots of mutual respect and even fandom — like Jay directing the "We want pre-nup!" chant in Kanye's "Gold Digger" — that stand out. The diverse 1st Mariner Crowd was treated to it for more than two hours.
The strength of Jay and Kanye, the team, comes from their differences. Jay is the image of steely cool, always standing in one place, fidgeting with his hat and hitting each line of his complex verses with ease. Kanye is the opposite: he sprinted across the stage while rapping "Touch the Sky" and he dusted off the vintage "Jesus Walks" shuffle, all while showing off his new Nike sneaker, the Air Yeezy II in black and pink.
And it's not a Kanye concert without an extended rant, and ours came at the end of "Runaway." He urged the audience to hold the person they loved so they "don't end up on this lonely box like me."
There was a box in the middle of the arena's floor, right behind the sound guy. When "H.A.M." kicked off the night at 8:50, Jay appeared on the center landing pad while Kanye performed on one directly in front of the stage. It got better: the boxes rose like elevators, bringing the rappers closer to the cheap seats. At times, images of sharks, panthers and other aggressive wildlife played on the boxes. The show's imagery was ambiguous, ranging from Ku Klux Klan meetings to a Malcolm X speech.
The set design, both stunning and simple, can only be an afterthought when catalogues run this deep. Jay stuck to the amped-up party hits ("N---- What, N---- Who (Originator 99)" still has that bounce) while Kanye mixed and matched between emotional songs ("Heartless" felt cathartic) and his own radio staples (if you need a crowd to get live, "Good Life" is still a good option).
For most of the show, Kanye and Jay performed their solo songs without the other on stage, with "Watch the Throne" songs coming in evenly divided spurts. But when their spotlight-time overlapped, the duo's charisma was on full display. A rap nerd's fantasy came true when Kanye recited the cop lines in the second verse of Jay's "99 Problems." It felt like a moment normally reserved for awards shows.
There was only one way to end a show of this magnitude: bludgeoning the audience with "Watch the Throne's" most electric song, "N----- in Paris." And once wasn't enough. Twice? No, Kanye and Jay performed the album's second single three times in a row, all while wearing grins the size of their bank accounts. Appropriately, the night ended a "Black Album" favorite, Jay-Z's "Encore," and the night felt full-circle. Kanye, who made the song's beat, punctuated each Jay line, all while throwing up the famous Rocafella dynasty diamond with his hands. The crowd returned the favor.
"Baltimore blew every city off the map thus far and it's not even close," Jay said before the lights turned on. Granted, that only puts us above Atlanta and Greensboro and Jay-Z could've been working the crowd like the pro he's so naturally become. But then he added, "This is my livest time in Baltimore and I've had many." With energy that electric and palpable, emanating from the stage and off, he may have been telling the truth.
"Who Gon Stop Me"
"Welcome to the Jungle"
"Gotta Have It"
"Where I'm From"
"N---- What, N---- Who (Originator 99)"
"Can't Tell Me Nothing"
"Public Service Announcement"
"Run This Town"
"Made in America"
"Hard Knock Life"
"Empire State of Mind"
"On to the Next One"
"Dirt Off Your Shoulder"
"I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)"
"That's My B----"
"Touch the Sky"
"All of the Lights"
"No Church in the Wild"
"N----- in Paris" (three times)
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