At Rogers Arena on Saturday, December 17
Since they first teamed up for “This Can’t Be Life” in 2000, Kanye West and Shawn Carter have formed pop music’s most fascinating pairing, their relationship fired by equal parts collaboration and competition. West got his break making beats for Carter (aka Jay-Z), and then went on to become a bigger solo star, subverting the master-pupil dynamic not by becoming a better rapper than his idol, but by being a better musician, proving that nerds can beat out street guys if they try hard enough.
Where Jay’s a virtuoso, Kanye’s a high-flown conceptualist; he’s the Warhol to Hova’s Rembrandt. Which one you prefer says more than just how you feel about rap music; it tells us whether you like art to be subtle and refined, or flamboyant and provocative.
Whatever their fancy, a full house of Vancouver’s young and beautiful received their money’s worth and more from these titans, who delivered the best arena concert this city has seen in years. Part combatants, part compatriots, the New Yorker (Jay-Z) and the Chicagoan (West) stood on rival platforms to begin the show, trading verses from songs off their first full-length collaboration, this year’s Watch the Throne. They took to the same stage for that album’s “Welcome to the Jungle”, a kind of warning shot to every other rapper alive that concluded with the rather chilling image of the two men staring in admiration at the big screen, which flashed footage of two cheetahs chasing down and devouring an antelope.
That image of Jay and ‘Ye as undefeatable predators recurred throughout the night, the Americans performing song after song against a video montage of sharks, Rottweilers, grizzly bears, and too many wild cats to mention. West’s outfit emphasized the warrior theme, his muumuu-size T-shirt bearing silkscreened fangs and whiskers superimposed over an image of his face, the shirt hanging over a black-leather kilt, which in turn hung over black-leather trousers.
Jay-Z, meanwhile, was his usual composed self, pulling his trademark Yankees cap low as he skimmed the surface of his vast catalogue of hits. The show was organized as a kind of relay race, one rapper taking the baton for a brief suite of songs before handing it to the other, tracks on which they’ve both appeared (like “Monster”, “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”, and “Run This Town”) serving as lap markers.
Hits aside, it was the subtle moments that stood out—like Kanye delivering a Lady Gaga–like inspirational sermon (“Be awesome,” he exhorted us); the expectant father Jay addressing his unborn child on “New Day” while Kanye rapped along off-mic; Kanye singing Bon Iver’s part on “Lost in the World”; Kanye shouting instructions to a camera operator (“Keep that shit moving!”); Jay-Z grinning madly throughout.
Things ended as they have elsewhere on this tour, with the two MCs trotting out the gargantuan “Niggas in Paris” several times in a row, rewinding the track selector-style after West’s cathartic “Hah” at mid-song. It was the kind of indulgence that royalty allows itself, but one that hits home for anyone who’s ever listened to a tune they love, then repeated it, again and again, until it becomes a kind of mantra. It’s hard to imagine meditating to “Niggas in Paris”, but if bliss is what you’re after, it might be worth a try.