As the booming bass and sputtering hi-hats of "H.A.M." filled Baltimore's 1st Mariner Arena last night, Kanye West and Jay-Z rose 15 feet in the air on cubed platforms on opposite ends of the floor, like gladiators ready to battle. They traded the boastful, booming verses of the song – the first single from the duo's recent collaboration Watch the Throne – as if trying to beat each other into submission. That West was wearing a black knee-length tunic only aided the illusion.
But as the show went on, it became clear that after more than 11 years as co-workers and collaborators, Jay-Z and Kanye West are more like brothers than battlers. The dynamic persisted throughout the show: Jay as the elder, more established, restrained (and talented) performer, paired with West, the hyper, more free-spirited, colorful (and interesting) one. The wardrobe reinforced the dynamic, as Jay stuck with black T-shirts and hoodies, while West, late in the set, augmented his tunic with a floral/fire-print embroidered cardigan that seemed intended more as a statement of power – "I can wear whatever the fuck I want" – than one of fashion.
The spectacle of the cubes – the sides of which doubled as video screens showing mostly ferocious dogs and sharks – raised the show's co-stars to a mid-arena space that seemed equidistant from the floor seats and the nosebleeds and lending an unusually intimate feel for such a large venue. They stayed there for "Who Gon' Stop Me," another Throne track, before uniting on one stage as the vocals of Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" presaged the coming of "Otis," the Throne single that samples it. As they tore into the upbeat jam, the duo palled around, slapping backs and trading rhymes before a giant American flag, echoing the easy joy of the song's video.
From then on, the show mostly resorted to more typical arena-show tricks like fireballs and lasers, leaving the rappers to provide the thrills. The MCs effortlessly shared the spotlight: Instead of leading distinct sets, they just bounced back and forth, pulling choice hits from their ample catalogs. Jay asserted his dominance early with "Jigga What," proving that 13 years after dropping his hyper-speed signature rhyme from Hard Knock Life, the 41-year-old still has the chops to knock it out of the park.
"Baltimore fucks with my shit," he improvised on the last line, basking in a sea of "Ho-va" chants and Roc diamonds in the air. Kanye tried to keep pace, dropping truncated versions of "Can't Tell Me Nothing," "Flashing Lights," "Jesus Walks" and "Diamonds from Sierra Leone," with Jigga stepping onstage for the second half of the last song, which segued nicely into his "PSA." When Jay went into "Hard-Knock Life," 'Ye stuck around just to dance around and point, more homeboy than hype-man. Jay returned the favor when West later tore into "Touch the Sky."
Even when the camaraderie was clearly staged, the duo's genuine friendship made it work: When Jay finished his 2000 ode to the good life, "Big Pimpin'" – even rapping Pimp C’s verse a cappella – West said he remembered listening to that song, "but every time I tried to be like that – " and the opening vocals of "Gold Digger" cut him off. Jay seemed to enjoy the song as much as the crowd, mouthing along with the words and leading the crowd in the shout-out, "We want pre-nup!" When that crowd-pleaser wrapped, Jay quipped, "I feel for you man, but all I can say is – " and launched into another crowd pleaser, "99 Problems," with Kanye performing the song's cop dialogue.
There were some inevitable lulls in the 38-song set, particularly when the duo sat down on stage for two of Throne's more serious, subdued songs, "Made in America" and "New Day" ("Thanks for letting us share, Baltimore," Jigga said at the end), or when Kanye indulged in a mini-heartache set of "Runaway" into "Heartless" (Hug the one you love so you "don’t end up on this lonely box like me," he emoted). But things were cooking again by the time they reached the encore, which included a third rendition of Throne's most recent single, "Ni**as in Paris" along with "Encore," from Jay's Black album.
"Baltimore blew every city off the map thus far," Jay said before his final retreat, despite the fact that it was only the Watch the Throne tour's third stop. "It's not even close." (Sorry, Atlanta and Greensboro.) It had the ring of you-say-that-to-all-the-cities insincerity, but after the hit-and-energy packed two-and-a-half-hour set, a jam-packed arena was feeling the love and respect emanating from the stage.