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Live Review: Jay-Z & Kanye West, December 16, 2011, Tacoma Dome – Tacoma, WA

To close the Tacoma show on their mammoth Watch the Throne tour, Kanye West and Jay-Z played “Niggas in Paris” five times. This puts it somewhere in the middle: that shit was more cray than the San Jose stop, when they only played it three times, but significantly less so than their two performances in Los Angeles last week, when they played it a combined 19 times. Grainy YouTube clips, incredulous “did they really play ‘Niggas in Paris’ seven times?!?!?!?!” reports, and general meme-ification do no justice to the in-person experience of the back-to-back-to-back (-to-back-to-back) “Paris”-es. It’s sort of unprecedented—not just playing a song more than once over the course of a show, but playing it twice in a row to close, and then coming back out for an encore and playing it three more times? The fact that they did it this in the first place, let alone right after the KKK-and-Vietnam montage that accompanied “No Church in the Wild,” was a blatant middle finger to anyone who criticized Watch the Throne’s celebration of wealth. It was almost as if Kanye and Jay were daring each other, right before the audience’s eyes, to make the show as ridiculous and over-the-top as possible.

This sequence defined the show, and by extension the album the two rap giants are supporting. The tour famously got pushed back over a disagreement between Jay and Kanye over the execution. Kanye wanted a lavish, expensive production; Jigga preferred a stripped-down show that would have brought in greater profits. Kanye won that one: the stage featured two rising video-screen platforms, one on a satellite stage in the middle of the floor. Jay opened the show there, and Kanye used it for his mini-set of “Runaway,” “Heartless,” and “Stronger,” the show’s centerpiece and highlight.

This fundamental philosophical difference between the two revealed itself during the duo’s marathon set, which spanned over 40 songs and clocked in at nearly three hours. Kanye’s sections of the show were laden with special effects and improvisations. Jay, meanwhile, took a more straightforward, stripped-down approach to his material. Not that this came as a surprise to anyone with any degree of familiarity with either’s career. Kanye’s always been the perfectionist, the tortured artist; Jay is the virtuosic business mogul. His brilliance comes off more nonchalant and less labored. The back-and-forth structure of the show allowed both to play to their strengths during their solo turns, while their performances of the Watch the Throne material and their other collaborations (such as “Monster” and “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”) managed to strike a balance between their approaches.

Jay mentored Kanye at the turn of the century, but the two are unquestionably equals now, both in the rap game and in each other’s eyes. There was no upstaging and no deference on the part of either one, just celebration of their deep catalogues of hits. And what a pair of catalogues they are. The amount of classics on display from Jay (“Jigga What, Jigga Who,” “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “U Don’t Know,” “Public Service Announcement,” “99 Problems”) and Kanye (“Jesus Walks,” “Good Life,” “All Falls Down”) was staggering at times, even to the two men onstage. The Watch the Throne songs felt stilted and overindulgent at times on record, but they’re tailor-made for this kind of big-budget, more-is-more arena production. Even the ones that kinda suck, like “H.A.M.” and “Welcome to the Jungle,” felt suitably epic in this setting.

The show didn’t run flawlessly. Kanye cut “All Falls Down” short and threatened to remove an entire section of people on the floor when someone threw an object onstage (the offender fessed up), and subsequently bungled his verse of “Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix),” forcing Jigga to bail him out. Jay, for his part, committed the old-as-time rock-show mistake of greeting the city of Seattle at a show in Tacoma (he corrected himself later on). Kanye cut off “All of the Lights” several times to make sure everybody had their cell phones in the air to his satisfaction, but in this instance it came off as more of a Saturday Night Live parody of his megalomania than a genuine miscue.

You know what else seems like an SNL sketch on paper? Playing “Niggas in Paris” five times in a row to close the show. But they did it. They did it because they could. And the audience loved it.

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