I was going to write this article three weeks ago, right after seeing the Watch the Throne concert, but I couldn’t find the words to describe what I’d just witnessed. There were a multitude of adjectives buzzing around my head at the time, including the ones below:
Electrifying. Stupefying. Awesome. Mind-blowing. Momentous. Grand. Sensational. Spectacular. Phenomenal. Insane. Unreal. Surreal. Extraordinary. Meaty. Artery-clogging. Bloating. Constipating.*
(*There’s a chance that some of these words describe a particularly troublesome burrito I was eating at the time. I believe the two lists of words somehow got mixed up.)
After sifting through the innumerable words that could possibly have described the event, I turned to plagiarism for my selfish benefit. The word I came up with (stole) to characterize the event was: Cray. There’s truly no other word that suits. That shit (was) cray.
But more on cray later. (Also coming up, in case you’re already bored: Paris, pickles and sex tapes. I like to include something for everyone – Francophiles, foodies, and sex maniacs.)
Before even stepping foot inside the hallowed walls of London’s O2 arena, we knew this was going to be something special. To see Jay-Z or Kanye West solo is a huge deal; to see them together is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Which is why I was pretty dismayed after walking – climbing – up to our upper tier seats. I’m pretty sure I could see asteroids flying around up there – but maybe that was just the altitude sickness kicking in. A buddy of mine, who bought tickets on the day from a scalper, paid half the money I did, and secured better seats, said I looked so upset “up there” that he thought I was about to cry. Upper tear seats indeed.
So I sat up there on the summit of Everest and sulked, munching on my grubby-ass cheese pizza and sipping on my £8 Heineken that I’d bought from the concession stand, and generally wishing bad things on the lucky bastards with standing tickets way down there on the floor. When, without any warning, two figures appeared on huge cubes in the middle of the floor, and the bass-heavy tones of “H.A.M.” started pounding from the speakers. I was mesmerized. Here they were, two kings of modern-day hip-hop, Jay and ‘Ye, the rap veteran and the virtuoso producer, the businessman and the egomaniac, gracing their cube-stages just for us. And I couldn’t see jack shit.
“Cheer the fuck up, you miserable piece of shit,” were the paraphrased words that my buddy aimed at me. (Actually, they were pretty much the exact words.) So I did. As much as I hated the floor ticket people for that party of a lifetime they were having, and for almost being able to touch Kanye’s leather skirt, I put on a happy face and, like the two hip-hop heavyweights on cubes, resolved to “go H.A.M. – hard as a muthafucker”.
And, boy, did they go H.A.M. After the defiant “Who Gon Stop Me”, during which images of great white sharks appeared on the side of their cubes, they proceeded to the main, front stage as the soulful tones of Otis Redding signaled the start of “Otis”. The party had officially begun, and the giant TV screens suddenly came to life, meaning I could finally see, not just hear, what the hell was going on.
I should note that, from the very start, even though we were in “seated” tickets, I’d been standing in front of my chair. I saw it as taking a stand against the O2, The Throne, but mainly Ticketmaster. Three months ago, I woke up early to get on a 7am train to get into work at an unpaid, two-week internship at 8:30am on the dot so I could log into Ticketmaster and have my finger poised on the “Buy Standing Tickets” button at 9am sharp. Is that not good enough for you, Ticketmaster? Did you want me to camp out in front of the palace at Ticketmaster headquarters (I assume they work out of a palace, not an office, so I can hate them more for being snobbish and rich) the night before and beg for tickets, in return for a hundred years of indebtedness to Ticketmaster? Sadly, I would have considered this. I assume being Ticketmaster’s slave for a hundred years – doing mundane tasks such as sending out flyers, updating the website and performing creepy sexual favours for the King of Ticketmaster – kills you slowly, which knocks at least thirty years off that hundred. And by 11am that day, the site had crashed over and over again, leaving me with no choice but to settle for the cursed seated tickets. So now is my revenge, Ticketmaster. I am going to stand for this entire show, blocking the views of the poor guy behind me, who probably thought he was going to have a relaxing Monday evening, and now he has some jerk in front of him and has to videotape around his fat ass. This is your fault, Ticketmaster, not mine.
(Dear Ticketmaster, I repent for my sin of this outburst against you. It’s only a joke. All praise be to Ticketmaster. As soon as I finish writing this article, I will be sure to get back to scrubbing the palace floors, gypping other helpless people out of their standing tickets, and then I’ll be in the Ticketmaster Master Bedroom for whatever freaky ticket shit you have lined up for me as punishment.)
Luckily, most of the others around me were standing now as the rappers ran through their Watch the Throne collection; it was difficult to not want to be on your feet. The theme of the show, like the title of the Kanye track, was power: about being the best of the best, about being wealthy and having risen up from nothing to being on top of the world – on The Throne, in fact. (Not the toilet.) As Kanye raps in “Otis” about his “other other Benz”, and Jay describes himself as “looking like wealth, I’m ‘bout to call the paparazzi on myself”, it’s evident that the two have reached a point where they have nothing to prove – but they’re proving it anyway. The only people that can top them…are themselves.
On a simpler level, the show was about giving the fans what they wanted: the hits. And, unquestionably, they followed through on this. Jay and ‘Ye went on to run through streams and streams of their solo hits while the other took a quite respite – or even stuck around to play the other’s hype-man; Kanye even played the racist cop in Jay’s “99 Problems”.
For me, it felt like Kanye was running the show. I’m not suggesting, by any means, that he was better – just that Jay, the already accomplished, wiser, more disciplined of the two, was letting Kanye take charge. Jay’s already been there and done that – and, besides, he gets to go home to Beyoncé and baby Blue Ivy, while poor Kanye has to trudge backstage and continue teaching Kim Kardashian the alphabet. (She’s currently on S- and T-, for S-ex T-ape.)
Jay still played the role of the mentor, picking up the slack when his former apprentice was out of energy. During the slower “New Day”, when the two sat and caught a breath after a kinetic string of songs, Yeezy, out of breath, looked over to the veteran, and Jay knew what to do: he rapped part of Kanye’s verse for him, while he recuperated. At this point, the two looked less like two giants, and more like a vulnerable son leaning on his sapient father.
This is not to say that Kanye slumped; in fact, the crowd responded wildly to Mr. West’s solo compilation – perhaps because, in this country at least, Kanye has generally had a more successful track record in terms of chart hits and popular consensus; or perhaps because, let’s face it, he has some rockin’ stadium bangers that are designed to tear the roof off. As soon as his first solo song – “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” – rang from the speakers, the entire arena broke into screams. Everyone rapped along as he went from hit to hit to hit, from “Jesus Walks” to “All Falls Down” to “Monster”, and from to “Good Life” to “Stronger” to “Touch the Sky” to “Gold Digger”. It was no wonder he was drained of energy – so was I, and I was just standing up on some precipice on the top of Mount Fujiyama, looking down.
Before each hit played, the name of the track would flash across the screens, so the audience knew what was coming next, and so they could respond in the appropriate fashion. For me, that response, in nearly all cases, was: “OH SHIT! [Insert name of song here]! THIS IS FUCKING INSANE! (I WISH WE HAD STANDING TICKETS!) BUT STILL, THIS SHIT’S INSANE!” I rocked up to the arena dressed in a pretty nice, off-white Polo shirt and dark jeans, and by the end, after all the rapping and arm-flinging to the beat of the music, I was a sweaty mess. The Polo was clinging to my chest as if I’d partaken in a Ralph Lauren wet T-shirt contest. My hair was dripping with perspiration, and my voice had gone. I’m sure it was an incredibly unattractive sight. This, then, was not a great time to pick up girls. Although, if any ladies out there are into sweaty brows, dehydrated cottonmouths and runny noses (which actually had nothing to do with the concert; I just also happened to have a cold at the time), please don’t hesitate to give me a call.
Kanye didn’t fail to inject a little of his egomania and sidetracking into his performance, though. After “Runaway” and “Heartless”, he “went off on one”, as it were, preaching and philosophizing for ten minutes about love and “holding on to the one you’re with”. Which seemed rather romantic and idealistic coming after a song that includes the lyrics: “24/7, 365, pussy stays on my mind”. Perhaps it was the thought of his newfound sweetheart, Kim Kardashian, sitting backstage and reciting her five times tables. (You would think, incidentally, that a man who thinks as much of himself as Kanye does, especially intelligence-wise, wouldn’t settle for a reality TV star for whose brains God didn’t have any neuron fibers left so used dental floss instead. A friend of mine has an intriguing theory that Kanye is gay, and that all this “player” talk is simply a ruse.)
Kanye also stopped “All of the Lights” halfway after the line: “MJ gone. A n***a dead!” He demanded that everyone join in and yell “a n***a dead!” the next time through – “this is the only time you’ll get away with saying it,” he joked. Or was it a joke? Was he making a serious, philosophical point here? Did he mean, on a deeper level, that everyone, despite their race or background, should all come together as one and disregard pre-existing racial and class constraints? No, probably not. But I still held back, uncomfortable with the thought of uttering, let alone shouting, the N-word, even if Kanye had given us his baffling blessing.
Of course, the two rappers alternated, with Jay-Z taking the reins in between Kanye’s ever-enigmatic performances. With Jay, there was a sense of refreshment. Jay gets to the point. He’s there to perform, not to sermonize, and for him, it comes effortlessly. Like his approach, his outfit was straightforward, and without a need for a leather skirt: “all black everything”, topped off with a Brooklyn Nets hat, representing, of course, the team he part owns. He needs to do nothing more than this to show that he’s the shit, and his repertoire supported this, with hits like “Dirt off Your Shoulder”, “Hard Knock Life”, “Public Service Announcement”, “On to the Next One”, “I Just Wanna Love You”, “H to the Izzo” and “Big Pimpin’” – not to mention his full rendition of New York’s unrivalled theme song, “Empire State of Mind”, which was a breath of fresh air directly following Kanye’s “Runaway” rant.
They were at their best when they shared the stage (or their own individual cubes), whether they were playing their Watch the Throne tracks or featured songs from their solo albums, such as Jay’s “Run this Town”, and the remixes of Kanye’s “Power” and “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”. Oh – and then there was that other one song, and one song only. What’s it called again? They didn’t play it enough times for me to remember…
Of course, I’m talking about the most epic rap song I’ve ever heard: “N****s in Paris”. That shit is more epic than Ben-Hur. It’s more epic than a triathlon across the South Pole with nothing more than a Speedo and a bicycle pump. (And not even a bicycle. That has to be acquired via some shrewd bargaining with penguins. They may look cute, but they’re swindling sons of bitches.)
Why is it “epic”? First of all, the name of the song is “N****s in Paris”. Clearly, the duo’s point is that it’s a rags to riches fairytale for two guys from the hood to be able to producing music in Paris (most of Watch the Throne was recorded in France), in the fashion capital of the world, wearing designer clothes and jewelry and generally “balling so hard”; as Jay says: “[If] you’d escaped what I escaped, you’d be in Paris getting fucked up too!”
Another reason is that the track has enjoyed what I call the “SexyBack Effect”. Every once in a while, an artist releases a song containing a term or expression that everybody will start to use in daily conversation. After the release of Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” in 2006, it was hard to avoid hearing at least one obnoxious college kid a day saying: “Yo dude, I’m totally digging these new kicks I picked up from Pac Sun the other day, they’re so sick bro! How much am I bringing Sexy Back right now?!” Even The Queen was heard using the term, on more than a single occasion: “One is looking utterly handsome this wintry eve, Philip, in that terribly tight tank top. One can see one’s six-pack! Has one been working out lately? One is certainly bringing Sexy Back tonight!” Sure, it was irksome that the expression was so overused, but it was a testament to the popularity of the song and its mass effect on the public. Another example was Rihanna’s 2007 hit, after which it was impossible to walk outside on a rainy day without hearing: “Hey, kids, did you remember to bring the umbrella? –Ella, -ella, -eh, -eh?”
“N****s in Paris” is enjoying the SexyBack Effect currently, with “ball so hard” and “that shit cray” – the song’s hooks, repeated by Jay and Kanye respectively – having become the latest slang words to enter the Urban Dictionary. Incidentally, “cray”, evidently a contraction of “crazy”, has been analyzed by some to actually be “Kray”, in reference to the British crime lords, the Kray brothers, who evaded police for several years – they “balled so hard, muthafuckers wanna find [them]”.
Either way, the song is famous not just for these catchphrases, but also for the fact that Jay and ‘Ye close their Watch the Throne shows by playing the track over and over again. The day I went to the concert, the two played the song four times in a row, which seems like a lot, but made me feel like I(‘d been cheated after hearing that the night before, and the night following, they played it seven times. (They recently set a record – at their show in Paris, fittingly – by playing it a whopping eleven times.) Now, my list of ways I have been screwed over looks like this:
- No standing tickets
- Only four renditions of N.I.P.
- Amazon Prime charging me a monthly fee without emailing me with notification of the end of my free trial. (Again, this has nothing to do with the subject at hand, but still noteworthy, I feel.)
I have since become so used to hearing the song multiple times in a row that it simply doesn’t seem right when played a single time. At a club, recently, soon after the DJ played the track, I went up to her and asked if she could play it again. “I just played it,” she said, perplexed. “I know,” I admitted, “but it’s just so epic.” I think would happily fork out a decent amount of money for a N****s in Paris tour, comprising solely the one track played over and over again.
In fact, I want N****s in Paris to be the theme tune to my life. I want the song played at my wedding. When the bride, shining angelically in her pristine white dress, cheeks glowing with excitement (it hasn’t yet fully dawned on her that she’ll have to spend the entirety of the rest of her life with me), instead of the wedding march, the minister will announce: “We’re gonna skate to one song, and one song only”, at which point the organ, connected to a bass-heavy sub-woofer, will start playing the melody, and the congregation will begin balling so hard. I also want the song played at my funeral. As guests dine on fish filet, instead of uttering the usual condolences and remarks like “what a shame”, they will – equally somberly – shake their heads and say: “that shit cray”. My gravestone will say: R.I.P., N.I.P. (Obviously, the cause of death will be: balling way too hard.)
After the fourth N.I.P., the show was over, and it was time to descend the steep ridge of the upper tier seating area. (The people in the standing area were able to leave pretty quickly – just saying.) I walked down the steps eating the remains of the grubby-ass pizza, which was now cold, and had probably been stepped on several times by latecomers squeezing through to their seats; and as I chomped down on the cold, hard cheese, I heard a person behind me – who can only be described as an asshole – complain to his friend: “Why did they have to keep playing that song over and over again?”
Instead of cutting his harness and pushing him down the mountain, I reflected on the momentousness of the show and knew it was easily the best concert I’ve seen. Though, admittedly, I seem to say that about every new concert I go to. I said the same thing when I saw Jay-Z solo for the first time in State College, Pennsylvania, where he kicked off his tour for The Blueprint 3. I said the same when I saw a low-budget T.I. concert (in-between his jail stints, I suppose); and also the same when I was fifteen and saw a drugged-up Eminem in 2003 (although to see the newly reformed, top-of-his-game Eminem today would be a mind-blowing experience). And I even said the same when I saw Akon and Rihanna live in 2007, though that was probably because I was a sophomore in college and drunk 95% of the time; and I’m pretty sure that concert was not part of the 5%, as I only reserved that for events that called for sobriety, such as going to the gym, reading books, and some exams.
Incidentally, one concert I did not say was the best I’ve been to was – and don’t judge – a Nickelback concert. Let me firstly defend myself by asserting that this was the tickets were sold at student rates, so I paid rather little to go. And, although the band’s music is generic (generock) and there’s a Facebook group that’s managed to recruit more fans of a picture of a pickle than of Nickelback, I have to admit that they did put on a pretty good show. But the problem arose out of the fact that I’d only bought my own ticket, having been assured by my roommates that they would also be buying tickets in the coming days. Of course, the day of the concert arrived and they had not followed through, and so I was forced to get my money’s worth by going to the concert…alone. In one of the most embarrassing moments of my life (and there have been countless), I tried to avoid looking as if I were there by myself by casually standing close to a large group of people who were there together, pretending I was with them. I even stooped so low as to nod along to their group conversations and laugh along with their jokes.
But at least I had standing tickets for that concert.