AUSTIN, Texas — Perhaps the biggest surprise about the Jay Z and Kanye West double-header at the Austin Music Hall on Wednesday night was its complete lack of surprises – no Beyoncé cameo, no Daft Punk appearance, no mention of a sequel to Watch the Throne, all of which were rumored. Not even the fact that Kanye was wearing a miniskirt was noteworthy: that shit's old hat by now.
If I sound a little disappointed by the lack of bombshells, SXSW has only itself to blame. Over the years, the festival has conditioned us to expect the unexpected – Justin Timberlake has parachuted in, Lady Gaga is due to pop out of a giant Doritos bag any day now. Even Hova himself was a surprise guest the last time the duo performed here in 2011, during Kanye's G.O.O.D. Music showcase, for which Ye trotted out a full marching band. This time around, it was nothing but two of the world's biggest rappers, performing a just-announced two-hour show at the Austin Music Hall (one of whose occupants was a crowd-surfing Tyler, the Creator).
To the hundreds if not thousands who, despite their best efforts, couldn't get into the show — you had to have the right phone with the right app, wait in the right line at the right time for a long time, then retrieve an Ajunti Dagger without spilling any water, or something — I'm sorry to report that it was probably even better than you imagined.
The show started with "H*A*M" —well, actually it started with Jay and Ye ascending through the center of two large cubes placed on opposite sides of the venue, which was shaped like a low-ceilinged pit-fighting arena, with balconies on three sides and a small stage on the fourth. Standing across from one another like two combatants (sorry, there really was an odd Kickboxer vibe), the two traded verses amidst a deafening audience whose ability to hit every call-and-response cue was so uncanny it seemed rehearsed. Tracks from Watch the Throne followed – "Otis," "Gotta Have It," Welcome to the Jungle" – as photos of variously fierce animals flashed across huge screens: cheetahs, lions, sharks, Dobermans.
After dispatching a chunk of their Throne material, the two took turns delivering solo sets of their greatest hits for the next hour-plus, switching off every two or three songs: "Tom Ford" followed by "Drunk In Love," "Black Skinhead" followed by "New Slaves," and so on. While a handful of musician-looking silhouettes were stuffed toward the back of the stage playing keys, turntables or the odd guitar (a nice touch on "99 Problems"), the fellas had the stage to themselves, tagging one another in every few songs. They left practically no hit unplayed: "Jesus Walks," "Run This Town," "Runaway," "All of the Lights," "Big Pimpin'," "Gold Digger," "99 Problems," "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)." For their encore, the duo performed – not surprisingly – "N---as in Paris," stretching the track out, pausing to bask in rapturous applause, then kicking it back off again, the stage finally going dark save for rails of white light shining down.
"This is a glorious occasion," Kanye announced from somewhere in the darkness. And then they were gone.