Kanye West has a rep for being, shall we say, opinionated about award shows – which trophies he should have won, which ones young country singers shouldn’t have. But as he and Jay-Z performed together Wednesday night in Chicago, the hometown rapper was surprisingly subdued about his seven Grammy nominations, announced on TV from Los Angeles while the concert here was in progress.
He barely mentioned it. “This song just got nominated for song of the year, by the way,” West said as he started “All of the Lights,” from last year’s acclaimed album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”
Both “Fantasy” and the album this joint superstar tour is supporting, the West/Jay-Z collaboration “Watch the Throne,” were nominated for best rap album – West’s effort deservedly so, the duo’s CD not so much. Expectations for the pairing were epic and unattainable, yet the results still managed to disappoint. The title instructed us to look, rather than listen, and so seemed largely an excuse for one helluva tour.
What failed to come across on record was on redeeming display most of Wednesday night: brotherhood, respect and in the end, a feisty playfulness. West and Jay-Z might not be related by blood, but the two rappers finished each other’s rhymes as if they were twins and showed a united front in their first of two shows this week at the United Center.
The two biggest hip-hop stars in the world could have come out swinging at each other. Wearing black T-shirts from West’s KW fashion line, they appeared Wednesday atop towering LED cubes rising at opposite sides of the arena, as if they were gladiators ready to fight with flow and war with words. Instead, they shared the spotlight amiably, slapping backs and swapping tracks.
They traded verses in the opening “H-A-M” before joining together onstage before a giant American flag banner and performing “Otis” (Grammy nominated for best rap song and best rap performance), complete with belching flames. By the intimate moment of “New Day,” they were sitting down and sharing insights West said were some of “the realest sh–” they’ve ever rhymed about, namely their future sons – slightly more poignant now since the power couple, Jay-Z and Beyonce, are expecting.
Jay-Z, who rarely removed his black leather Yankees cap, stepped lightly on West’s hometown stage as he delivered the tunes celebrating his Brooklyn roots, such as “Where I’m From” and the popular “Empire State of Mind” (last year’s Grammy winner for best rap song and best rap performance). West shouted out to Bulls star Derrick Rose and said, “It feels so good to be home.”
While video screens showed barking pit bulls, growling mountain lions and swimming sharks, Yeezy and Hova maintained an animalistic hunger throughout much of the concert. West, 34, has more to prove on this outing. Jay-Z, 41, toured his most recent “The Blueprint 3” thoroughly last year, including buzz-worthy sets at festivals such as Coachella in California. West hasn’t officially toured since “Fantasy” was released. He assembled several cohorts from his G.O.O.D. Music label for a midnight-to-dawn concert in March during the South by Southwest music festival in Texas, where Jay-Z joined him onstage.
The contrast Wednesday was occasionally stark. Jay-Z is a happy multimillionaire. Content and collected, he moves gracefully and hits hard on a bare stage with nothing but a spotlight. Alone for his own “PSA,” “On to the Next One” and others, he worked the rhymes like a bench press and stared into the audience as if he were ready to land a punch.
West, meanwhile, looks down when he raps. It’s all happening in his head more than it’s an experience on stage. He was buzzing around Jay-Z like a fly throughout the night. On his own, he was the drama queen – dancing in and out of laser beams (“Flashing Lights”), mugging fiercely for the stage cameras during a sizzling “Stronger” and absolutely nailing “Power” with a fierce flow performed in near complete darkness, save for some pinstriped lasers and a few bursts of pyro.
West’s extended vamping during “Runaway,” mixed with bad jokes and unsolicited relationship advice, sent many for beer and the bathrooms. But the double-barreled hit machine fired round after round toward the end: “Big Pimpin’,” “Gold Digger,” “99 Problems,” and the best tracks from “Watch the Throne,” “No Church in the Wild” and “Lift Off.”
The concert closed with an odd but revealing tradition that’s developed on the tour. For their final song, West and Jay-Z performed “N—– in Paris,” a jerky, quirky club track from the new album. Then they performed it again, ending with some hard (almost dub-step) dance-floor beats.
When they returned for an encore, they did the song again, and again, and again – until they broke their previous record from Detroit (seven versions) by giving West’s hometown crowd a total of eight. The same song, eight times. After the third, the crowd was invited to crash the floor, which was easy to accomplish, since some people had already made for the parking lot (but also because the show was not sold out and in some corners was roomy). The pair horsed around, infecting each other with a slap-happy goofiness before shutting it down after more than two and a half hours.