One on One: Jay-Z’s “Heart of the City” vs. Kanye’s “Glow In The Dark” Friday, May 9, 2008Posted by Andy Hutchins in One on One, Rockabye.
One on One will be an occasional feature here at DeadOn, comparing and contrasting one pop culture thing to another in various categories, making totally somewhat baseless and arbitrary judgments, and hopefully making some people happy and other people mad. It’s like VH1, but good.
Today, we have a matchup between “Big Brother” and “Little Brother,” as Kanye dubbed them, and their current dueling megatours, Jay’s “Heart of the City” swing with Mary J. Blige and Kanye’s “Glow In The Dark” odyssey with Lupe Fiasco, N.E.R.D., and Rihanna.
Let me first say that I caught Hova’s already-finished-in-North America tour on its official opening night, in Miami on March 22nd at American Airlines Arena, and that I saw Kanye and Co. this past Monday night, May 5th, in Tampa for a mid-tour date at the Ford Amphitheatre. (And that I’m not giving you EW‘s B+ review, Kanye. Don’t hurt me.)
I’m not going to be posting live videos from the concerts, because they technically are forbidden, because I think both tours are worth seeing/buying on the inevitable concert DVDs, and because I don’t want to spoil most of that live experience with video.
But YouTube has footage of a lot of these shows.
Now, for the fun. Today’s One on One is my answer to this question: Which show was better?
Kanye’s tour uses his three tourmates as warm-up acts of sorts, but as they all show up on the billing, I’m not giving them that tag. The Jigga tour had the inexplicably hyphenated The-Dream, whose twenty minute set was a blur of him being upstaged by a foursome of athletic dancers, hypersexualized lyrics, a deafening bass that drowned out much of the performance, and the phrase “Radio killer!” belted about three hundred times. It was disappointing, to say the least, because I actually enjoyed some of his studio stuff (check out Livin’ a Lie, a soaring duet with Rihanna), and from what I’ve heard of his debut album, it’s good; that performance eroded much of that feeling.
Advantage: Kanye, by default, for not letting his concert stoop.
This, too, is tricky: Kanye’s unquestionably the star of his show with three undercards and Jay comes out second and does the featured set at his after a co-headliner, but I’m comparing their supporting acts, combined into one category, on merit more than purpose. (The opener to the HOTC show was actually a duet on “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” but Jay beat feet after that.)
Mary J. Blige gets called “the queen of hip-hop soul” mostly for lack of competition, because it’s really her personal genre and other artists merely branch into it; her set in Miami backed that up and then some. Touching both on older hits from her canon like a fiery “No More Drama,” a swagging “Family Affair,” and a wrenching “Your Child” and newer tracks like showstopper “Be Without You” and “Just Fine” and “Stay Down” off her latest album, Growing Pains, MJB, supported by a retinue of a couple backup singers, a few backup dancers/actors, and a large band, was the epitome of the brassy belter all night despite losing a massive hoop earring early on, roaring through ninety minutes or so that had most of the female portion of the crowd on their feet and swaying. Even for someone who wasn’t a fan going in, I was thoroughly impressed.
Lupe led off the GITD show with a smooth, turntable-backed set with cohort Bishop G that largely eschewed the overarching conceit of The Cool for standalone lyrical gems like the frenetic “Go Go Gadget Flow” and the dark musings on gun-toters of “Little Weapon,” as well as mellower hits like “Kick, Push” and “Paris, Tokyo.” Lupe was perfectly engaging and light on his feet for an opener and made the odd 6 PM start work to his advantage, but his set suffered greatly for lack of live instrumentation: A string quartet would have helped “Kick, Push” and “Go Go Gadget Flow” immensely, and one talented drummer would have given “Little Weapon” its proper rattle. As it was, it was solidly above average, though only setlist rearranging and live music stood in the way of it being grea.
The ace in ‘Ye’s support is N.E.R.D., the eclectic rap-rock hybrid that usually defies those labels, whose set was, for lack of better descriptive words, through and through fantastic. Frontman Pharrell Williams brought two very good drummers, a few keyboard players, a couple of guitarists, and a wave of charisma to the stage. Demanding that people from the grassy berm come down to the lower levels (which they did en masse, producing some puzzled faces and, ultimately, inaction from the Live Nation employees), Skateboard P created a pseudo-mosh pit for an energetic string of songs from “She Wants to Move” and a defiant “Rockstar” to “Everybody Nose” and “Spazz” from the promising Seeing Sounds and letting his guitarists rip off a certain riff and tacking a chorus on. If they’re alone and at this level on a subsequent tour to support that album, they would be worth the price of admission by themselves.
Rihanna, however, faltered early in her performance and only recovered by playing to her strengths at its end. Coming out in a kinky get-up of leather, heels, and fishnets, she seemed rather uncomfortable with being that sexy at first, and was far better after swapping that outfit for a less revealing pair of baggy pants. But while she did skip verses and drop notes through a rather mediocre set of hits, the peak, of course, being “Umbrella,” as rousing live as it was the first time on the radio in 2007, her most interesting and entertaining decision was a cover of a song far better than anything in the Rihanna catalogue. After musing for a bit with the companions I went with about Ri-Ri’s placement in the setlist, I landed on the reason: “After this, anything Kanye does will be genius.”
Advantage: Jay-Z, and only N.E.R.D. cancelling out Rihanna makes it close.
I write here about getting things I wasn’t anticipating from the show.
In Miami, that was Young Jeezy trotting out for what was maybe his verse from the remix to Shawty Lo’s “They Know,” notable in that it prevented a potentially epic Jigga freestyle over the unstoppable horns of that song, Memphis Bleek being Memphis Blech as usual, and Timbaland showing up, possibly soused beyond measure, only to chat. That, and somebody named Kanye West rising from the middle of the stage to tear down the roof with “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and “The Good Life” while Jay was reduced, as I put it in my Facebook status that night, to ‘Ye’s hype man. It was truly sensational, a passing of the torch and an upstaging at once, and a moment I’ll guess only Miami got on the tour.
All the GITD tour can counter with was N.E.R.D.’s appropriation of “Seven Nation Army” for the “All the girls standing in the line for the bathroom” refrain and Rihanna’s cover of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” including the gunshot chorus. The former was worth a smile, the second a smirk of disbelief: Rihanna’s an immigrant from Barbados, yeah, but she’s never going to have the outsider appeal of M.I.A., and the song just didn’t seem to fit her.
Advantage: Jay. Kanye screwed himself over here.
More Than Music
The Heart of the City tour is supposed to be about depicting those emotions and struggles, and in the strained emotion of Mary J. and Jay’s earlier hustling days, that was accomplished. But Jay also went political, freestyling about supporting soldiers and bringing them home, dropping a two-word couplet from “Blue Magic” that rhymes with “truck push” for the audience to yell, then displaying a picture of Barack Obama and asking, “Are you ready for change?” For a man who’s compared himself to Michael Jordan more than once, it beat “Republicans buy sneakers, too” by a wide margin.
Kanye, though, can’t rely on more “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”-style politics; he’s said before that he doesn’t know enough about politics to support candidates. So he has to lean on Rihanna’s rather meager pandering with “Paper Planes” and his own tale of woe. If, though, his involved space-opera saga (more on this) is interpreted as a search for home, a reminisce on his mother’s life and death, and an examination of the power of dreams (and it could be), it’s certainly higher art and thinking than hip-hop usually provides. Most people will not see it as that, I think.
Advantage: Hova, who’s put his voice behind Obama, too.
Miami’s a great hip-hop town, with the lifestyle of fast cars and loud shirts popularized by Miami Vice alive and well in the well-heeled, high-heeled, and wine-sipping crowd at the Triple A in the 305 that Saturday night. But the crowd trickled in slowly, only really filling the arena by Jay’s 10:45 PM start, and the acoustics of the arena, though very good for an arena, leave things to be desired.
The Ford Amphitheatre was a different animal. Open air, a huge, acoustically marvelous band shell, and great tiered seating made it a perfect venue for music, likely one I’ll go back to despite its two-hour drive; everything off-stage was better in Tampa, from free parking to shorter lines, excepting maybe the somewhat distracting security chases of a few apparenly ornery or seat-hopping concertgoers.
Advantage: ‘Ye, and it’s not close.
The Main Event
Jay-Z has been performing in concert since Kanye was in middle school, and has been hip-hop’s biggest star for about a decade following the deaths of Tupac and Biggie. So it was no surprise that he came off as coolly magisterial in Miami, gliding through his hits with a superbly tight band behind him, commanding attention in nothing more than a white tee and some jeans. This was the refined Jay, a musician/hustler who knew how to give a show a little oomph here and there, rouse the crowd and have them hanging on every word, and turn the party out, as they say.
And he hopped from material from the excellent American Gangster, like the ominous “Blue Magic” and “Roc Boys,” a horn-heavy bit that’s as close to the perfect hip-hop celebration song as anyone’s likely to get, to earlier stuff like the meditative “Can I Live,” the joy of “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and “Big Pimpin’,” the sneering superiority of “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” and the out-and-out excellence of “99 Problems,” never lingering too long anywhere in his massive warehouse of hits. The next-to-last bit of the night involved him playing DJ, dropping snippets from songs and letting the audience roar before dismissing them one by one, firing up “Encore,” and watching the dynasty diamonds fly; the finale was, of course, the duet with MJB on the tour’s titular track. A tremendous show, no doubt, from a old pro.
Kanye’s set was unlike anything I would have imagined, even knowing sparse details from earlier reviews. He wears an odd straitjacket/spacewear get-up, and begins the show prone on a desolate alien landscape. As his computer, Jane, explains the situation, waking up Mr. West, Kanye launches into a ninety-minute space opera that uses songs from all three of his albums, weaving them into a narrative of pain, suffering, loss, aspiration, and, ultimately, success.
It’s a concept that works so well, I think it would be difficult to watch any part of the concert by itself; it’s the opportunity Jay could have had with an American Gangster concert brought to life as The Rises and Falls of Kanye West (In Space). Starting with the spooky “Good Morning,” hopping to the soulful “Through the Wire” and “Champion,” soaring with “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” exploring humility with “Spaceship” and “All Falls Down,” then rising with “Good Life” to the crescendo of love, for the late Donde West in “Hey Mama” and Chicago in “Homecoming,” Kanye finishes, appropriately, with the heights of “Touch the Sky” and the only time anyone but Kanye graced his stage, in another nod to the new school.
Though Kanye milked his hugest choruses over and over, I write that off as a forgivable fusion of both hubris and sheer joy in the moment, and though he screwed up a verse in “Good Morning,” his impromptu freestyle, though not earth-shattering, was more of the beautifully chaotic Kanye that has become this generation’s musical touchstone; he’s not the smoothest performer, by any means, and he’d probably still kill for the ideally deep voice he’s joked about not having (though he gave it to himself with a vocoder on one song), but Kanye has a special magnetism that’s riveting in person. He’s arrogant, unconventional, and at times base and crude, but he’s also unrepentantly and unrelentingly Kanye, and he’s one of the best we have for it.
Advantage: Kanye, whose set will almost assuredly be the concert event of the year.
It’s a statistical tie, with three categories each way, but Kanye’s got the advantage in the most important category.
To paraphrase Jay: Jay-Z is the showman; Kanye is the show, man.
Game, Set, and Match: Kanye’s “Glow In The Dark” tour.