Crown Royal: Kanye West and Jay-Z Launch Throne Tour in Atlanta

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David Peisner WRITTEN BY
David Peisner

On the opening night of Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch the Throne tour in Atlanta on Friday, there was a lot to look at. The show opened with Jay and Kanye trading verses on the frenetic Watch the Throne single "H.A.M.," as they rose up at opposite ends of Philips Arena atop giant hydraulic video cubes projecting images of rather ill-tempered Dobermans. A few minutes later, a huge American flag dropped from the ceiling flanked by bursts of pyrotechnics for "Otis." Multicolored lasers shot off in every direction all night long and massive video screens behind the stage projected a stream of images to complement many of the songs — tigers and leopards for "Welcome to the Jungle," fighter jets and eagles for "Touch the Sky," police cars for "Run This Town," bears for "Monster," etc. And then there was Kanye's wardrobe, which at one point included what looked like a black leather kilt accompanying some sort of alpaca sweater jacket thing. Wow.

For all the duo's efforts at visual stimulation though, it was actually the night's simplest moments that really resonated — Jay and Kanye sitting on the edge of stage during "New Day" and "Hard Knock Life," or Jay, smiling broadly and wrapping his arm around Kanye's shoulder as the latter worked through the verses of "Gold Digger." At those moments, it was possible to imagine that these were just two intensely creative guys who really liked making music together as opposed to two giant corporations completing a mutually beneficial merger.

In fact, perhaps the most endearing moments of the night were the not-infrequent opening night technical snafus. During "Who Gon Stop Me," Jay suddenly broke off his rhyme and stopped the music because his in-ear monitor was apparently malfunctioning. While the problems were being worked out, he finished the song a cappella, playfully slowing his verses down to a crawl, adding drama and humanity to the tune that the oppressive and generally muddy arena sound system would've all but obliterated otherwise.

The sound was pretty terrible all night. Performing almost entirely to pre-recorded backing tracks — there was an electric guitarist and a keyboardist adding frequent flourishes but no backing vocalists, no live percussion — the mix seemed to get cruddier the more involved it got. So "Jesus Walks" just sounded like a thumping, droney mess of bass and drums — neither the gospel choir nor Kanye's rhymes could be much discerned — but the simple, straightforward "99 Problems" felt reasonably sharp. Kanye's voice sounded pinched and nasally throughout the night, particularly in contrast to Jay's authoritative boom, but that might have been less about poor sound quality and more an accurate rendering of their relative vocal abilities.

Kanye seemed to work a lot harder onstage than Jay — sprinting, kneeling, straining and at one point dancing wildly across the stage doing a sort of spastic "Ickey Shuffle" (as in, late '80s Cincinnati Bengals running back Ickey Woods — look it up, kids!). None of this could really hide the fact that he just doesn't possess the same kind of natural charisma as Jay, who could elicit a roar from the crowd with the simplest of gestures.

The two spent probably half of the two-hour-plus show performing together; the rest of the time they toggled between their respective solo catalogs. They ran through nearly every song on Watch the Throne, but beyond that stuck close to the hits, of which there are obviously plenty. Rumors that Beyoncé would appear to sing her hook on "Lift Off" proved erroneous — in fact, Jay and Kanye didn't even bother with their own verses on it, just ad-libbing a little over the backing track. Another WTT track, "Murder to Excellence," felt limp and was cut short by Jay, when he seemed to discern (correctly) that hardly anyone in the crowd was interested in hearing it. The set list probably could've benefited from a few surprises, though surely there would've been more grumbles if that meant displacing stuff like "Big Pimpin'," "Empire State of Mind" or "Roc Boys."

In the end, after the steady barrage of crowd-pleasers, the show finished with a bit of a shrug. "Why I Love You," which closes Watch the Throne, is a tune which bemoans the alienating effects of occupying the rarefied air that Jay and Kanye do. The problem with their massive stage show was that it only reinforced the distance between rap royalty and their dutiful subjects. At the night's best moments, Jay and Kanye came down off their thrones and reminded the commoners that they were just regular guys too. But as the pair closed with "Why I Love You" in front of 40-foot video images of themselves on the screen behind them, it seemed as if they were climbing back up and closing the castle gate behind them.

Set List:
"H.A.M."
"Who Gon Stop Me"
"Try a Little Tenderness"
"Otis"
"Welcome to the Jungle"
"Gotta Have It"
"Where I'm From"
"Nigga What? Nigga Who?"
"Can't Tell Me Nothing"
"Jesus Walks"
"Diamonds From Sierra Leone" (Remix)
"PSA"
"U Don't Know"
"Run This Town"
"Monster"
"Power + Remix"
"Murder to Excellence"
"New Day"
"Hard Knock Life"
"Izzo"
"Good Life"
"Empire State of Mind"
"Runaway"
"Heartless"
"Stronger"
"On to the Next One"
"Dirt Off Your Shoulders"
"Touch the Sky"
"All of the Lights"
"Big Pimpin' "
"Gold Digger"
"99 Problems"
"No Church in the Wild"
"Lift Off"
"Niggas In Paris"
Encore:
"Encore"
"Made in America"
"Why I Love You"

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