One of the most high-profile events at this year’s SXSW from the moment it was announced, the pairing of Jay Z and Kanye West on a stage together was a must-have ticket for reasons beyond just the big names involved. With a listed capacity of only 3,000 people, the concert’s location at the Austin Music Hall gave fans a chance to see the superstar rappers in confines several orders of magnitude smaller than normal.
The stage for the Samsung-sponsored concert – the company’s first of four shows this week – featured a 12-foot-tall video cube at center stage and a similarly sized setup toward the middle of the concert hall, directly in front of the balcony. As ominous strings set the mood in the blackened theater, the two MCs rose from the interiors of each station, with Kanye up front and facing the crowd, Jay Z in the middle of the venue and facing his counterpart. The two kicked things off by trading verses on a trio of songs from their Watch The Throne collaboration album, including “H.A.M.,” “Who Gon Stop Me?” and “Otis.”
It was a setup that would have never worked in a large arena because of too much distance and sound lag between the two, but in the small hall, the staging created a livewire dynamic between two of the best rappers ever, who fed off each other’s energy for the whole of the epic two-hour concert, which touched on hits from both rappers’ catalogs.
Seeing both solo and in tandem – they were off the platforms and on a traditional stage for most of the night – offered a sort of living Venn Diagram of each man’s talents and lyrical strong points, with Jay confidently displaying his up-from-the-bootstraps-and-into the penthouse persona as one of the world’s premiere entertainers and West charismatically airing a miles-long list of perceived slights.
That the pair were able to find common ground on Watch The Throne is still kind of amazing, and when they shared the stage the combined swagger and magnetism made the show live up to its promise as a do-not-miss event. And that was before they each dusted off classics like Jay Z’s “Big Pimpin’,” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” and West’s “Stronger” and “Gold Digger.”
After another trip up on the video cubes for some solo cuts, the pairing ended with three consecutive spins through the volcanic hit “Niggas in Paris.” It was a move caked in excess, but one that seemed right for a night designed to deliver complete sensory overload.