On opposite ends of the arena, perched on towering, video-panel-studded platforms, Jay-Z and Kanye West face off like gladiators waiting for the action to begin. Then it does: Lasers fire across the crowd, and the monster PA surges to life with thunderclap kick drums, subsonic bass lines and spastic high-hats. It’s the first Watch the Throne single, “H.A.M.” – and it’s way more impressive live than it was on the radio, shaking Baltimore’s 1st Mariner Arena as the rap titans begin trading furious competetive verses.
“I’ve never been to a hip-hop show that was so much of a party, ever,” says Pusha T, whom West recently signed to his G.O.O.D. Music label. “Back-to-back ridiculousness. No dancers, no band, no opening act, no guests – I’m talking about bare-bones rap. It is the most arrogant show that I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Back in 2001, Jay gave Kanye his biggest break, making the then-obscure producer’s beats the centerpiece of his classic LP The Blueprint. Since then, the pair have boosted each other’s careers countless times – Jay kicking key guest verses on Kanye tracks including “Diamonds (Remix)”; ‘Ye cooking up radio-dominating beats for Jigga tunes like “Run This Town.”
Both tracks were broken out during the 37-song, two-hour-plus set – which seemed to mirror their relationship, the pair going hit-for-hit all night. But it also spotlit key differences: Faced with big brother Jay-Z’s unmatchable confidence and charisma, Kanye dug deeper into the core of what makes him great, becoming a ball of manic energy and pure creativity. During the “Try a Little Tenderness”-sampling Throne single “Otis,” the MCs met on the main stage to pal around, slapping each other’s backs in front of an enormous American flag.
It’s hard to overstate just how many all-time lose-your-shit jams these guys have – it’s like the hip-hop version of, say, U2 and the E Street Band sharing the stage on the greatest tour of all time (“‘Rosalita’ into ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ was sick, bro!”).
Kanye blasted through “Flashing Lights” and “Jesus Walks”; Jay returned for “Diamonds” – which segued into the Brooklyn MCs own “PSA.” When Jay launched into the 1998 smash “Hard Knock Life,” ‘Ye stuck around just to dance and point, more homeboy than hypeman. Later, when Kanye ripped through 2005’s “Touch the Sky,” Jay returned the favor.
After running through “Gold Digger,” “Big Pimpin'” and “99 Problems,” the duo hit the encore – including, audaciously, the night’s third run through the current single “Ni**as in Paris.” Then, with the entire arena rapping along, the night ended, inevitably, with the Kanye-produced Jigga classic “Encore.”
“Baltimore blew every city off the map thus far,” Jay said at the end, which was nice to hear even though it was only the Watch the Throne tour’s third stop. (Sorry, Atlanta and Greensboro!) “It’s not even Close.”
This is a story from the November 24th, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.