Tuesday night saw the last of five sold out concerts at London's O2 arena for Jay-Z and Kanye West, part of their Watch The Throne tour that will be making its way to Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield over the coming weeks. These are undoubtedly two of the biggest stars in the world right now and reports from earlier shows had suggested that it would be a great show. Clearly Jay-Z and Kanye were keen to promote this viewpoint, reportedly telling audiences that it would be the best concert they ever saw. We had one such moment last night.
Jay-Z was taking a breather while Kanye ran through some of his solo hits. Undoubtedly the more energetic of the two performers, he was sweating profusely by this point, presumably not helped by his decision to dress entirely in leather. The concert production was slick, meaning a full two hours of hits that had the crowd going wild. Taking a rare pause between songs, Kanye told the audience that he had seen a newspaper article proclaiming Watch The Throne to be the best rap concert ever. The crowd started to clap and cheer but Kanye wasn't finished. "Rap concert?" he said, letting the question hang in the air for a moment so that no one was in any doubt as to his thoughts on the subject. "Why do they have to put us in a box?"
Rappers are renowned for their confidence, many appearing to be driven by little more than ego. It goes with the territory and sits perfectly with the competitive undertone that has always characterised this art form. But Kanye had made a good point. This was a fabulous concert regardless of genre. With the rising stages, video screens, flames and incredible use of lasers, it was also a real spectacle.
I hadn't been bowled over by the Watch The Throne album as many seemingly had. The 2011 album was the first full-length collaboration between Jay-Z and Kanye but it somehow fell short of their two most recent solo efforts, Jay-Z's The Blueprint 3 and Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Even so, it was good to see them working together on a shared project. Kanye began producing for Jay-Z around the time of the 2001 album The Blueprint and since then he has become a global star as a result of his strong production skills and heart-on-the-sleeve raps. Watch The Throne was a chance for master and apprentice to shine together. As it turned out, there was some slick production and some great back-and-forth rapping, some excellent individual verses and even a few heartfelt moments. It showed that, even if the material wasn't their strongest, the dynamic on stage should be very enjoyable.
You would have been forgiven for thinking that this was their one and only night in London as both artists seemed so fired-up, so hungry. They came out to the track H.A.M., the two rappers appearing on individual stages which rose upwards to expose visuals of dogs barking and then sharks swimming beneath them. After a couple of tracks together Jay-Z disappeared for a while, allowing Kanye to run through his back catalogue and setting the scene for the rest of the concert. They would take it in turns, overlapping with collaborations such as the Diamonds From Sierra Leone Remix or more songs from Watch The Throne. Occasionally they would set up their songs to work against each other, Jay-Z retorting to Kanye's Gold Digger with his 99 Problems.
Kanye is a much more dynamic presence on the big stage, always moving, dancing and running around. Jay-Z is a different type of character. He is more controlled and almost shamanic, particularly when he delivers his more complex verses. It's easy to forget that his first album came out way back in 1996. He has a vast catalogue of hits and it was a pleasure to hear him run through classics such as Big Pimpin'. He has continually developed as an artist since then and his newer material was just as welcome. In a much shorter time Kanye has also become a formidable lyricist himself, no doubt helped by working with some of the most accomplished rappers in the game. It meant that the concert was never less than engaging, the thousands of fans eagerly following instructions to wave their arms in the air or to chant along with choruses.
Is this the best live rap concert ever? Quite probably. If you didn't make it to one of the London shows and you can find tickets for Manchester, Birmingham or Sheffield, then I strongly advise you to go. Is it the best concert of any genre you will ever see, just as Jay-Z and Kanye would have you believe? All I can say is that it is the best concert I have been to yet and I will jump at any opportunity to see these two perform again.
There are some people that make an impact on you quickly and somehow maintain a degree of longevity in your field of vision. Rodney Lucas, aka F. Stokes, is one such person. He is charming, a true gentleman and, above all, an emerging talent on the hip hop scene. That is not to say he is in any way new to the 'game'. Rather he has been working hard for many years and is slowly getting the recognition he deserves.
Stokes and I first met in a bar in New York some years ago; early January about four years ago I guess. He was a friend of a friend of a friend, and we all hung out and had some beers and talked about music, as music lovers are prone to do. At the time I was producing and presenting and online radio show via the University of Edinburgh's "Fresh Air" station and lined-up a phone interview with Stokes for when I got home. It wasn't the best phone line, and maybe the production side of things wasn't as good as it could be if I'm honest, but it was a good interview. Here was a US rapper on an Edinburgh-based online radio show, discussing how he was working with an Australian music producer/DJ. It was very global, very digital, and reflected how a new generation of artist would start using social media to develop their fan-base. We played some of Stokes' tracks (or Flukie Stokes as he was then known), including a rap over an instrumental of "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley - the first track to go to number one on the UK charts predominantly through digital sales and one of the drivers for Stokes to choose that track.
Some years later, during a period of personal boredom and a frustration at the fact that I was no longer producing and presenting a radio show, no longer DJing, and no longer promoting any events, I found myself looking Stokes up online and discovering that he had a new album available to own via iTunes. "Death of a Handsome Bride" blew me away. The production was amazing (courtesy of Lazerbeak), and the rapping was far more honed than it had been a few years earlier. I found myself making comparisons to Kanye and Jay-Z as I listened and I maintain a belief in those similarities to this day. I got in touch with Stokes shortly afterwards and expressed admiration for his album and an eagerness to put on a show or two when he finally came to the UK. It turned out he'd been very busy touring around the States and Scandinavia. In fact, he is fairly relentless in terms of his work, constantly touring, making videos and fresh songs. In recent months he has opened for acts such as Del the Funky Homosapien and Talib Kweli, and has just returned from a trip to Paris where he opened for The Clipse.
Now I'll confess to having failed to find the funding to get him over to the UK for a series of tours and, quite frankly, can't afford to put on more than one or two from my own pocket. However, I hope he'll get to these shores soon and I hope to be able to get involved. A quick YouTube search will show you just how good a performer he is and I strongly recommend you check out his album.
In the meantime, you can see an interview with him on web-based YRB TV.