10 things we learned from Watch the Throne
(1) Now, that’s what I call a show. Jay-Z and Kanye West brought the Watch the Throne juggernaut to Dublin at the weekend complete with giant podiums, lasers, projections of sharks, birds, pitbulls and marauding jungle animals, a gigantic stars-and-stripes’ …
(1) Now, that’s what I call a show. Jay-Z and Kanye West brought the Watch the Throne juggernaut to Dublin at the weekend complete with giant podiums, lasers, projections of sharks, birds, pitbulls and marauding jungle animals, a gigantic stars-and-stripes’ flag and two-and-a-half hours of bumper-to-bumper boom tunes. It made up for every hour spent watching crappy hip-hop shows from half-assed rappers over the years. Game is on a whole new level now, folks. My review for Saturday’s paper is here.
(2) Jigga’s brand awareness is always on point. Note the presence of a Brooklyn Nets’ cap on his noggin to endorse his team. Bet he’ll change the lyrcs to “Empire State Of Mind” at some stage to mark the new allegiance.
(3) Back in November 2004, Kanye West arrived in Dublin for the first time with a team of four or five. He played two shows, one in the old Point Depot and a late-night club set in Vicar Street, and got around town in a van with his crew. It was a lean, mean, streamlined set-up. But back then, as we noted in our interview with him (you’ll find the interview below), he was just another rapper in a stripey-jumper who didn’t turn heads in a hotel lobby. Fast-forward to 2012 and the arrival of West and his entourage is a whole different story.
(4) Despite the fact that we’re dealing with two monster box-office hits coming together for the first time, there were still plenty of tickets available for the second show. Promoters MCD even put discounted tickets on sale for the Saturday show, a first for an act of this calibre (wonder did anyone who paid full whack for theirs look for a refund on the balance?) which shows that even superstars are having trouble shifting tickets in advance for their shows in 2012. The word-of-mouth from Friday’s show, though, probably helped this one over the line. And while the show was always going to be indoors because of the production, it would probably have struggled to make the numbers outdoors. It’s not just Aslan who are finding advance ticket sales hard to come by this summer. Ask Red Hot Chili Peppers and Madonna (the reviews from Irish hacks of other dates on her world tour will be along shortly to help shift tickets for this one) for more on this.
(5) Four rampant versions of “Niggas In Paris” at the end. Now, that’s swag.
(6) Jay-Z’s live evolution has been very striking in recent years. Up to his Glastonbury show in 2008, Jay-Z never really had a live buzz – I saw him years ago in New York and it was just another hip-hop show. As he said in an interview with The Ticket in 2010, a Jay-Z rap show was nothing to write home about: “it was just a DJ and a MC and once you’d a hit record, they threw you in front of 50,000 people. You didn’t how to perform, you’d never done that before.” Post-Glastonbury, Jay-Z rebooted the show to suit the new audience who were coming to see him and found a new lease of life. The Watch the Throne hook-up with West takes that to a whole new level.
(7) With people leaving it late in the day to buy their tickets due to lack of cash and other calls on disposable income, you have to wonder how the merchandise pimps thought that flogging t-shirts at a sharp-end €40 a pop was a good idea. The bootleggers outside the venue before and after the gig seemed to be doing better business.
(8) Bigger cheers for Kim Kardashian than Bono. Most of this audience probably think of Bono as the fellow their aul’ lads call a tax dodging short-arse.
(9) West taking the piss out of Jigga’s “Big Pimping”. Pity Jigga didn’t take the piss out of the fact that West was sweating like a junior hurler at Tuesday evening training for the entire show.
(10) So what comes next for the partnership? In some ways, there was probably no need for the pair to come together in the first place – both were doing fine numbers alone – but the “Watch the Throne” album produced impressive creative sparks and augers well for the next artist albums. Will we see another Watch the Throne match-up and tour?
(Interview with West from 2004 below)
Sacking Kanye West was a bad day’s work for The Gap. Years before he became hip-hop’s most illustrious producer-turned-rapper, the young West worked as a greeter at a Gap store in his native Chicago. It was the job he took after finding out that he wasn’t quite suited to selling knives door to door.
“My job was to stand inside the door and welcome people to the store,” he recalls. “But I put my own spin on it, I used to freestyle.”
He then gives The Ticket a taste of what he used to do for The Gap on a daily basis. “Welcome to the Gap/We got jeans in the back/And we got some khaki slacks/And if you like that/You’ll probably like the shirts/Try one on, it won’t hurt/You got red socks on/Why don’t you put a red hat on?/We’ve got all that/And it’s all at the Gap.”
He pauses for a moment. “And to think that they fired me for rapping”, he says indignantly.
If The Gap still want West to hawk their jeans and t-shirts, he’s probably prepared to talk, but you can bet he’ll be looking for hundreds of thousands of dollars rather than the minimum wage. They’ll also have to join a long queue because a lot of people want a piece of the action right now.
This is the year that Kanye West went from iconic underground name to hit-making, video-toting, mainstream marvel. Having first made a splash with low-key productions for Mase and the Madd Rapper, he gathered much acclaim in 2001 for his warm, evocative soul-drenched production contributions to Jay-Z’s seminal album, “The Blueprint”. He scored his own deal with Jay-Z and Damon Dash’s Roc-A-Fella label the following year and was in the middle of working on his debut album when a near-fatal car accident left him in a Los Angeles hospital with his jaw fractured in three places.
A couple of weeks after the accident, his jaw still literally wired shut, West was back in the studio to record “Through The Wire”. Over a speeded-up sample of Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire”, West talks about the car-smash which nearly ended his life with wit and emotion. “It was part of the healing process”, he says now of the recording, but it also provided a way for him to fine-tune his debut album.
Sitting in the lobby of a Dublin hotel, West may have a gold chain around his neck, but that’s where comparisons with hip-hop’s usual braggers and blaggers begin and end. Quiet-spoken, thoughtful and reflective, the 27 year old doesn’t have any need to employ a crew of yes-men or strong-armed security.
“College Dropout” has already sold a couple of million copies, while his flying visit to Dublin sees him playing two sell-out shows, one at the Point Depot followed by a late-night club bash at Vicar Street. Yet few of the other hotel guests walking by the table pay any attention to him. Just another guy in a stripy jumper.
Instead, it’s “College Dropout” which does all the talking that needs to be done. The album of the year and hip-hop’s most innovative release in years, it merges beats tailor-made for the charts with a thought-provoking lyrical flow straight from the underground.
A superb social observer and commentator, West tackles issues ranging from materialism and empowerment to education and under-achievement with the kind of humour and biting insight so-called backpack hip-hoppers never utilise. Over grooves which ooze soulful basslines and samples, the self-proclaimed “first nigga with a Benz and a backpack” hits his targets every time with lines like “she couldn’t afford a car so she named her daughter Alexus”.
“I didn’t know the album was going to turn out like that,” says West. “After I had all these songs done, I started putting together a direction for it. It had a positive feel to it because all the songs are really inspirational. They show how you can get over a situation, they’re about taking the worst possible thing and turning it into a good thing, like the accident. At the end of the day, you’ve overcoming something.”
For West, accentuating the positive is vital to what he does. “I’m providing a service to people who need real music with real meaning, so it was important that the lyrics had as much heart as the beats. They’re songs for someone who thinks ‘I’m going through this today and he’s singing about what I’m feeling’. They needed that from a rapper. Alternative music had that, but hip-hop had no-one doing that. But right now, they do.”
This is hip-hop, says West, for those appreciate the fine things in life. “It’s for those who appreciate that the 10 seconds of strings which appear in the middle of “Jesus Walks” contain 100 tracks of strings”, he elaborates. “Those who appreciate that I drove to the Harlem Boys Choir’s summer camp to record them in a barn for “Two Words”. Those who appreciate the layers of piano, the layers of vocal and the poetry on “Never Let Me Down”.”
In fact, as far as West is concerned, anyone who doesn’t recognise “College Dropout” as a work of absolute genius is just in denial. “If I was to die on the plane going home, people would go back to the “College Dropout” album and hail it as one of hip-hop’s greatest works”, he claims. “As long as I am here, though, they can’t give me that credit, they won’t give me that.
“The only thing you can do with this album is praise it. I’m really annoyed that some people have the audacity to knock it. All these songs like “Spaceships” and “Jesus Walks” were made to help people out. For people to knock these songs would be like someone knocking a philanthropists who is helping out his community for not giving enough to the kids. When something is helping someone, how can you knock that? People can knock me for saying I’m arrogant or if I mess up or if I sleep with some girls before I get married or whatever. But “College Dropout”? You can’t touch that.”
Previous West interviews have provided similar views, so he’s obtained a bit of a reputation for self-confidence which veers over to the arrogant side of the road. He knows his self-confidence puts off some people, but what the hell.
“People either love it or hate it,” he says, “but people loved and hated Muhammad Ali. My grandfather loved Muhammad Ali and my grandmother hated him. But I bet more people love and remember Muhammad Ali than less. He used to talk shit like “float like a butterfly sting like a bee” and I think I say the same kind of things partly to provoke people. But don’t worry, I know you can’t please everybody.”
That said, West still picks holes in his own skills. He says he still needs to improve as a rapper. “My flow isn’t like Jay-Z or my voice still can’t be compared to Nas but I’ve figured out things. On the next album, I will have developed as a rapper and my flow will have improved because I now know how to use less words to get my point across.”
That album, provisionally called “Late Registration”, will be released next summer and a sneak preview of some of the work-in-progress shows West has not lost his touch for rich, soulful strings and uplifting grooves. “Music goes in phases and this seems to be the time for a warm sound”, he says. “Jay-Z’s “Blueprint” put the soul into the music, but I wanted to bring back the soul, the music and the lyrics.”
Since “College Dropout” was released, West has been surprised to discover how much he enjoys getting up onstage. “I love creating new music the best, but performing live is just so much more rewarding than working in a studio and letting someone else perform those songs. I wasn’t made to be in the background.”
He’s also acutely aware that as long as he is out there playing the shows and doing the promotion, the album will sell. He is, he says, his own best manager in that regard. “After the accident when I went into the studio to record “Through The Wire”, it was like me as a manger saying ‘hey, you nearly died, go in there and capitalise on it’. I’m everything in my career. I have people who are way better at certain things and I get them in to help me out, but I’m the first stylist, the first video director, the first manager, the first writer and the first marketing guy.”
West’s need for helpers appears to increase on a daily basis as new projects come on stream. There’s the de rigueur clothing line, Mascott, about to hit the rails, while there’s also a jewellery range co-designed by celebrity designer Jakob the Jeweller to finalise. On the music side of the fence, West recently signed a record label deal for his Good Music imprint with Sony-BMG, which means a home for such excellent talents as John Legend and longstanding Chi-Town rapper Common.
Yet none of this distracts from the main game. As West talks about how some rappers wear gold chains to feel more self-confident, he teases the theme some more and, before you know it, he’s freestyling away and telling his tour manager to write down some lines for future use. If a track called “My Chain Made Me Famous” makes its way onto the next album, you’ll know it all began in the lobby of a hotel on the banks of the Grand Canal.
A couple of hours later, West shows that it is possible to put on a hip-hop show in 2004 without resorting to clichés. There’s a full house in Vicar Street, but West doesn’t get one side of the room to yell louder than the other side or encourage everyone to throw their hands in the air like they don’t care.
Instead, the bangers come hot and heavy – “Jesus Walks”, “We Don’t Care”, “Spaceship”, “Breathe In Breathe Out” – and the room crackles with energy and euphoria. Who needs clichés when you have music this good? Hip-hop has a brand new bag and Kanye West is the man with his hands on it.