Watch the Throne

Jay Z and Kanye West Deliver the Mother of All Performances at SXSW

For just over two hours Wednesday night, hip hop gods Jay Z and Kanye West tantalized a packed crowd at Austin Music Hall with hit after hit after hit.

Willie Davis/The New York Times, via Redux

“Hey, Tim Cook, the head of Apple, stop trying to get performers to play your festivals for free. You are rich as fuck. Quit trying to act like you’re so dumb.”

None other than Kanye West uttered those words during a concert last month in Newark, New Jersey. And anyone curious about how Samsung has achieved the upper hand in the smartphone market need look no further than SXSW.

The annual music and arts festival in Austin, Texas, pits the two mobile rivals against one another in a curatorial battle of sorts. In one corner is Apple, who has set up shop at the ACL Live at the Moody Theater—five days of concerts epitomized by Tuesday night’s card of Coldplay and Imagine Dragons. And in the other is Samsung, who opted for one mega-bash showcasing the two biggest names in hip-hop: Jay Z and Kanye West.

Watch the Throne’s dynamic duo played to a packed crowd at Austin Music Hall. They’d previously closed out SXSW in 2011 when the Jigga Man made a surprise cameo during West’s keynote concert. The line outside the venue stretched several city blocks before showtime.

“I’ve been doing this here a long time, and I’ve never seen it like this,” a security guard told me.

Around 11:15 p.m., the blasts of smoke signaled the arrival of the two rap titans, with each rising from the depths on their own giant pedestal positioned at opposite sides of the concert hall—mirroring the setup of their lauded Watch the Throne tour. They opened with “H.A.M.,” their vigorous ode to braggadocio off the aforementioned collaborative album. The peg-like pedestals projected, at various times, images of flying doves, barking dogs, great white sharks, scrolling song lyrics, and fighter jets, while the crowd was dazzled by a plethora of laser-lights, ranging from a rain shower effect to one of an imaginary red net.

The thing that sets a Watch the Throne show apart from other hip-hop shows—or any other live music event these days, for that matter—is the way these two disparate MC’s complement one another. It’s a fascinating illustration of contrast. In one corner there’s Jay Z, the silky-smooth Brooklyn wordsmith blessed with a preternatural gift of gab, clad in a hoodie and gold chain. In the other is Kanye West, the vitriolic Chicago producer-cum-MC, sporting a leather kilt and black t-shirt studded with big silver stars around the collar. Businessman vs. auteur. The Samsung-distributed Magna Carta Holy Grail vs. the corporate-bashing Yeezus. “Death of Auto-Tune” vs. 808s and Heartbreaks. Ughhh! vs. Ahhh! Yin and yang. The elaborate setup reinforces this notion, transforming the proceedings into a heavyweight rap bout, with each rapper going verse-for-verse like a pair of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots.

After “Who Gon Stop Me,” the two join each other onstage for a rousing rendition of “Otis,” the Otis Redding-sampling rap ballad. And after five songs in unison, the two took turns reigning over the stage, and then their lone pedestal, by themselves, performing a selection of their greatest hits—“Drunk in Love,” “New York State of Mind,” the recent “Tom Ford” for Jay, “The Good Life,” “Jesus Walks,” and the recent “Black Skinhead” for ‘Ye.

But the real fireworks came towards the end of the show when the two reunited onstage. Jay Z kicked things off with the shoulder-shakin’ “Big Pimpin’,” with Kanye playing the role of hype man, strutting about and waving his hands in the air. Then, the two pals had a conversation.

Kanye: I tried big pimpin’ but when I tried you know what happened?

Jay Z: What happened, ‘Ye?

Cue “Gold Digger,” Kanye’s tune about, well, you know. At the conclusion of that tune, they go at it again. Kanye: You got any advice for me? What am I supposed to do?!

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Cue Jay Z’s “99 Problems,” with Kanye playing the role of the racist traffic cop.

Seeing Jay Z and Kanye onstage together, two of the biggest names in pop music, let alone hip-hop, is truly a sight to behold. It’s like watching Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page engage in a seemingly never-ending string of dueling guitar solos.

Following their growling anthem “No Church in the Wild,” the lights went down. The show had hit the two-hour mark, and the crowd began chanting, “EN-CORE! EN-CORE!” After several minutes of darkness, the duo emerged once more for not one, not two, not three, but four performances of their hit anthem “Niggas in Paris.”

When the lights went up and the smoke cleared, it was obvious which corporate brand had won. And this musical victory, of course, follows on the heels of Samsung’s brilliant bit of marketing at the Oscars with the ‘Selfie Seen ‘Round the World.’

Your move, Tim Cook.