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Review: Jay-Z, Kanye West still rap royalty

Posted 1:29am on Wednesday, Dec. 07, 2011

When is too much never enough?

When you're talking about Jay-Z and Kanye West.

The rappers, touring in support of their critically acclaimed collaboration Watch the Throne, fairly obliterated the American Airlines Center on Tuesday night, piling hit atop hit in a spellbinding display of skill that ranks as one of the finest concerts I've seen this year -- or perhaps in the last five -- in North Texas.

Leave it to these two to turn near-sensory overload into something approaching art (not to mention erase grumbling about the nearly two-hour wait endured by those who showed up, as indicated on the tickets, promptly at 7:30 p.m.).

For more than two hours, the mentor (Jay-Z) and the protege-turned-equal (West) performed together and apart. Whether seated next to each other on a surprisingly spartan stage or separated by the vociferous crowd seated on the floor, situated on cubes raised several feet in the air, the men spat verses with a laser-like intensity, refusing to coast or cut corners.

The set list was comprised of more than 30 songs and perfection was the order of the night: West re-started All of the Lights, from his most recent solo effort My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, three times when the stage lights behind him didn't trigger exactly when they were supposed to. "I just want to give the crowd what y'all paid for," said a grinning West.

Only the most determined curmudgeon could have walked out of the AAC feeling gypped in any way -- this was a spectacular experience, a moment to bear witness to two artists situated very near the modern pop zeitgeist. A spectacle fueled as much by ego as ability, Jay-Z and West used lasers, fireballs, crisply edited video clips and dramatic lighting (on a level not seen since Radiohead's mind-boggling 2008 show) to underscore the hit-laden set list, which maintained a peak energy level well into its second hour.

The pair's solo material was given roughly similar weight to the Throne tracks; West ran through smashes like Gold Digger, Jesus Walks and Stronger, while Jay-Z ripped up 99 Problems, Big Pimpin' and Hard Knock Life.

Yet the evening's most indelible highlights -- and, believe me, picking just a few signature moments is extraordinarily difficult -- stemmed from the cuts found on Watch the Throne. One of the most powerful came late, during No Church in the Wild, which unfolded against a backdrop of vicious images, including footage of a young child in a Ku Klux Klan outfit, dogfights and vintage religious services. The visuals neatly drove home the song's message, illuminating the despair and resignation felt in the hook: "What's a God to a non-believer/Who don't believe in anything?"

But the more contemplative elements were rare (the almost wistful New Day found the two men contemplating fatherhood), leaving only a party for the ages. The crowd was electrified throughout, dancing in the aisles and, near the evening's end, encouraged to crowd around the foot of the stage, making it like, according to Jay-Z, "a little club in here."

Very few performers -- in any genre -- can create and sustain the sort of night these two did. That's a gift, pure and simple. Either you've got it or you don't. And Jay-Z and Kanye West are smart enough to know they do, and they're wise enough to capitalize on it. Yet they are also generous enough to let moments of genuine humanity pierce the armor of superstardom. (Before the final song, Jay-Z stopped to collect a pair of vinyl LPs from a fan down front, and autographed them.)

All of it -- the lights, the songs, the atmosphere -- often felt right on the edge of being overwhelming, but that was what the two men wanted. West put it best, just before the lights came up on the fourth run-through of N----- in Paris: "I'm sorry if this is your first show you've ever been to," he said, shrouded in darkness. "It's all downhill from here."

Some video I filmed at the show. Warning: strong language.

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