West, Jay-Z take their throne at the Wells Fargo Center

Posted: November 04, 2011

As if they didn't stand tall enough in the popular consciousness already, Kanye West and Jay-Z appeared on stage at the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday night and immediately ascended skyward.

Initially, the oft-collaborating hip-hop hotshots who released their first full-length album together, Watch the Throne, in August, each had the bare stage to himself. Separately they entered during the Wagnerian string-and-synthesizer-powered "H.A.M.," the fiercely spit statement of purpose that takes pains to assert that each one is "hard as a" - using a 12-letter word that cannot be printed here.

West appeared first, in a gladiator's shirt and a black leather tunic, like a hip-hop Russell Crowe ready to do battle. (Maybe the rap-star-as-rock-star made his sartorial choice as a nod to the kilt-wearing Axl Rose, who, like West and Jay-Z, has a song called "Welcome to the Jungle.")

As the music swelled, West's stage rose, turning into a 20-foot-high cubed video screen that displayed snarling dogs looking mean enough to put a fright into Michael Vick. That commanded the attention, all right, until you noticed that there was another video cube displaying great white sharks climbing at the back of the building, and this one had Jay-Z, with his black-on-black Yankees cap cocked to the side, standing on top of it. (He's got to be the only man alive who can walk into a Philadelphia sports arena and celebrate his New York-loving "Empire State of Mind" without generating a single boo.)

By the third song - "Otis," the Watch the Throne single that liberally samples Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" - the duo were side-by-side at stage front, with the 41-year-old Jay-Z, as always, acting the lyrically nimble, unwaveringly confident big brother to the impetuous, crouching, hyperactively creative 34-year-old West.

There were also three programmers dressed in black working keyboards and drum machine and an occasional guitar. At the rear of the stage, they became visible only when the fireballs that spewed forth as musical exclamation points were bright enough to illuminate them.

That was to the good, because all the sold-out crowd needed to see was the star power displayed by West and Jay-Z - or Yeezy and H.O.V.A., if you wish. There they were, two of the dominant figures in pop music over the last decade, kingpins each enjoying his reign, and each other's company, and letting an arena full of pumped-up fans bask in their aura as they rhymed along.

And admire their hitmaking skills. The action-packed, expertly paced show ran just more than three hours, and packed in a whopping 36 songs, almost all of which, except for the deep album cuts from Watch the Throne, were instantly recognizable smashes that have been the soundtrack to the lives of interracial crowds since the dawn of the millennium.

The sound mix was loud, powerful, and crisp, and the duo were mostly together on stage, performing such declarations of greatness as "Monster," "Run This Town," and "Big Pimpin'." Each did exit occasionally so the other could do a solo mini-set. The most compelling was West's, where he was bathed in red light and did an extended version of the self-lacerating "Runaway" from 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and sang a hauntingly Auto-Tuned, emotionally bereft "Heartless" from 2008's 808s & Heartbreak.

Both songs showed one of the traits that make West such a compelling artist and which Jay-Z isn't the slight bit interested in: vulnerability.

By any measure it was a terrific show, but it petered out somewhat at the end. All night long, the video clip backgrounds were a bit hackneyed - lions hunting in "Welcome to the Jungle," eagles flying in "Touch the Sky." We get it: You guys are royalty, and it's your world we're living in.

Toward the end, the presentation overreached, attempting to turn the winningly vague "No Church in the Wild" into a serious (and seriously confused) political statement. The excellence of what preceded it deserved a better denouement, but no one was complaining as they walked out.


Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628, deluca@phillynews.com, or @delucadan on Twitter. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.

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