GQ goes behind the scenes and backstage at Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch the Throne Tour
Where did Kanye West and Jay-Z spend the last two weeks of October? At a convention center in Birmingham, Alabama, where they constructed the set of their epic 32-date North American Watch the Throne tour, hammering out a set list and working out the details of the stage show, from the lyrics to the laser lights. Then they trucked the whole show to Atlanta, where, on Friday night, the real deal launched in front of 20,000 people at Phillips Arena, home of the Atlanta Hawks. Not wanting to miss a piece of Ye-and-Jay history, GQ was in attendance, armed with an (amateur) camera and a notebook. This is the minute-by-minute play-by-play.
1:15 p.m. Wheels up at La Guardia airport en route to the A for the opening night of #WTT.
1:17 p.m.We try to guess which passengers on the plane are flying from New York to Atlanta for the show. Anyone in Beats by Dre headphones is a potential candidate. Business class is crowded with record execs who are going to the show: Island Def Jam President and COO Steve Bartels, as well as IDJ's Laura Swanson and Gabe Tesoriero, and Geffen's Tracy Waples. We've got a middle seat in coach and no complaints. #journalism
3:35 p.m.Touchdown in the A. Accept invitation to Island Def Jam dinner at the steakhouse Chops in Buckhead.
6:00 p.m.Arrive at the restaurant. The bartenders are all talking about the concert tonight. Even the balding white guys. Really, the whole city seems to be talking about the concert tonight—it doesn't feel like a stretch to say that there's a different electrical current in the air when Hov comes to town. Our bartenders say LeBron James has been spotted walking from the hotel next door to the Whole Foods across the street. Jay-Z is rumored to have hosted a card game the previous night at a new restaurant owned by Atlanta radio personality Frank Ski. Somebody spotted Chris Paul. We tweet from @GQmagazine that LeBron James and Chris Paul are rumored to be in Atlanta. Chris Paul tweets that he's in New York. #bartenders #rumors #facts #journalism
7:43 p.m.The-Dream (AKA Terius Nash) arrives at dinner in a double-breasted navy blue blazer with gold buttons, jeans, Timbs, and a snapback cap (see photo below).
Young Jeezy's watch (click to enlarge)
8:15 p.m. Young Jeezy arrives at Chops. We admire Jeezy's glittering watch. He says he got it when he was something like 18 years old. Note: The money Young Jeezy made when he was 18 years old was not from selling records. Def Jam's VP Shawn "Pecas" Costner says, "This dude Jeezy had jewelry before he had a deal. When I first met him he had on a diamond snowman chain—167 karats." Tesoriero says, "When I first met Jeezy he was at the club with 167 dudes." Jeezy does a real life, at-the-dinner-table version of his famous "ha-HA!" ad-lib. Awesome.
8:22 p.m.Drive to the Throne.
8:40 p.m.Kanye West's road manager Don C opens a back door at Phillips Arena and lets us in. "They're about to walk," he says, meaning Jay and Ye are about to take the stage. "So let's go right now." Don C takes us back to Kanye's dressing room. Kanye is standing in front of a mirror as two styling assistants hurriedly push pins into a leather kilt. He's wearing an extra-long custom black T-shirt. It has the image of Kanye's face melded with a saber-toothed tiger (or some kind of large cat) from the Watch the Throne album packaging screened on it, along with stars around the neck, and the initials JZ and KW in gothic font on the sleeves. Plus the kilt, black leather pants, and his own Nike hi-tops, the Air Yeezy 2. He says, "Pretty psychedelic, right?" We agree and then Kanye's creative director, Virgil Abloh, politely asks us to maybe, you know, let the man finish getting ready for the tour that's starting in a couple of minutes? #yikes #noprob
8:45 p.m. Backstage is buzzing. LeBron James is here wearing a snakeskin Miami Heat snapback cap made by Don C. We ask him for a GQ vs. LeBron rematch in Miami. He laughs. We take that as a yes?
8:55 p.m.About ten of us are bullshitting in a hallway backstage when the door to the dressing room marked simply "Hov" opens and Jay-Z walks out. He's wearing a Yankees snapback pulled way low. Like, Kanye, Jay also wears an extra-long black custom tee with stars around the neck and the initials JZ and KW in gothic font on the sleeves. There is no Jay-Z cat face, leather kilt, or leather pants. He is gripping a glass of red wine. We can't smell the wine, but the wine smells expensive. The whole hallway goes quiet and stares. He moves slowly and in silence—and his presence instantaneously sucks up all the oxygen in the room, all the noise. Nobody so much as breathes. Jay's got a screwed up look on his face, like he's disgusted by his own swagger, and like he's about to kill a person. Or maybe 20,000 people—a whole audience. Everybody in the hallway knows Shawn Carter to one extent or another, but sometimes, like in this moment, they're just fans like everyone else.
9:00 p.m.We file into a section of seats behind the soundboard. In the larger arena there is pure excitement: The crowd has been waiting for this moment. But in our section there's a note of tension among those who are involved in the planning and execution of this tour. There are a million question marks. How is the staging? What about the sequencing of the songs? Is the light show effective? Are the screens positioned right? Does the show have momentum and a narrative arc, with mellow lows and frantic highs? Saturday night's performance will be different from tonight's; Sunday's will be different from tomorrow's. They will tweak and refine through the early dates until it's exactly right.
Hov hits the stage (click to enlarge)
9:01 p.m.Our seats are at the back of the floor, but the lights go down and Jay-Z appears on a platform right in front of us. The opening bars of Watch the Throne bonus track "H.A.M." blast through the speakers. Suddenly the platform—a cube— begins to rise, with Jay rapping on top of it. Hundreds of feet away, on the stage, Kanye rises into the air on a giant cube of his own. It's an impressive piece of staging—the two current pillars of rap, rapping to each other from giant pillars—although it's a little hard to connect with what's going on up there if you're seated right below them. Jay is off beat for his early raps—a problem with his in-ear monitors, apparently—so he cuts the beat and goes a capella. #slick
9:19 p.m.First single "Otis" hits, with both rappers on the main stage in front of an American flag. Atlanta goes, uhm, well, ham.
9:27 p.m.The solo material starts early: After five songs from Watch the Throne, Hov goes into "Where I'm From" and "Nigga What? Nigga Who?" Then Kanye takes a crack at "Can't Tell Me Nothing" and "Jesus Walks." They reunite for "Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Remix)." With all their solo hits—and more than enough collaborations to connect them—the flow is seamless.
10:31 p.m.One of the top two or three musical moments of the night comes, unexpectedly, during the one-two punch of "Runaway," from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and "Heartless" from Kanye's 808s and Heartbreak. The Daft-Punk-sampling "Stronger" that will follow will pale in comparison, even though it should be the superior arena song. "Heartless" is, at this point, three years old, but West still pours all of himself into the tune, and the rumor after the show is that he broke down in tears from atop his cube during "Runaway." That's the yin and yang of Kanye and Jay-Z's collaboration: One is Mr. Ice Cold, the other always running too hot.
Terius "The-Dream" Nash (click to enlarge)
10:39 p.m.VIP section roll call: T.I., LeBron James, Fabolous, The-Dream, Cyhi da Prynce, Jay-Z business partner Steve Stoute, Jay-Z manager John Meneilly. So far no guests on stage.
10:47 p.m.Jay does the dearly departed Pimp C's pretty much perfect verse from "Big Pimpin'" a capella, with 20,000 people as his hype man. Powerful.
10:53 p.m.The 29th, 30th, and 31st songs of this set are "Big Pimpin'," "Gold Digger," and "99 Problems." This catalog is very deep.
11:00 p.m. Still no guests on stage. Clearly there won't be any. Gotta wonder if the same will be true at Madison Square Garden and Staples Center.
11:07 p.m.If you haven't heard "No Church in the Wild," either in a packed-out club or live on this tour, you haven't heard "No Church in the Wild."
11:10 p.m.The show has been outrageously good, but the roof of Phillips Arena doesn't truly blow off until "Niggas in Paris" drops. Halfway through, Jay-Z calls for a rewind and they simply start the damn thing over, dancehall style. Everyone in Atlanta is already balling so hard when the Will Ferrell sample kicks in—"Nobody knows what it means, but it's provocative"—which leads to our personal favorite moment of the night: Kanye simply yelling, repeatedly and at the top of his lungs, "NOBODY KNOWS WHAT IT MEANNNNNS!" #provocative
"Made In America" (click to enlarge)
11:21 p.m.The second of three encores is "Made In America," a song that has come to feel like the centerpiece of Watch the Throne. The album boils down to two MCs telling their "up by my bootstraps" stories, sometimes in political terms (invoking America's civil rights icons and claiming their own turf in the lineage of black excellence) and sometimes in the more gauche terms that Jay and Ye, both rightly and wrongly, are more famous for (boasts about being offensively wealthy consumers). Almost every verse onWTT is one or the other; many verses are both simultaneously. Tonight, images of MLK and Malcolm X flutter on the Jumbotrons.
11:37 p.m.Backstage after the show, Kanye and Jay are hanging out across from each other in the hallway, both soaking up congrats and analyzing the highlights and lowlights of opening night. It seems clear that the show will be tweaked—and that this is going to be one badass motherfucking tour. Kanye is sweating, his eyes blood red, still wearing his leather ensemble and a toreador jacket he added mid-show and generally looking like he just survived an almost 40-song set; Jay-Z has changed into a new white V-neck and a different snapback cap, showing no signs that he just performed an almost 40-song set.
11:51 p.m.Jay-Z hangs in his dressing room—all white curtains and couches—with his friends and pregnant wife, Beyoncé. Hangers-on, us included, mill around, trying not to overstep any boundaries—but not quite ready to leave the presence of the significant post-show glow. It's awkward and exhilarating. We find ourselves at the bar setup trying to figure out what to drink; Fabolous recommends coconut-flavored Ciroc and Pineapple juice. That'll work.
12:38 p.m.We hit the afterparty at the Atlanta club Reign. No club in Atlanta really gets popping until wild late; it's two-thirds full in here at best.
The Reign of Yeezy
1:29 a.m.Kanye West walks into Reign and a now-crowded club goes jamón y queso. Every camera phone in the club is up in the air. He stops by our booth for a hello. As he's talking to someone else, we try to give him dap but he doesn't see us and we're left hanging. Hopefully there's an awkward camera phone photo somewhere. Ye poses for photos with a few girls in their glitteriest going out gear, then gets walked to a table at the back of the club. He then proceeds to stand on top of it and master the ceremonies from there.
9:00 a.m.Wake-up call.
9:20 a.m.Take the elevator down to the hotel lobby. LeBron and his crew are sitting with their luggage. We slap LBJ five and ask if he's headed to Miami. "Nah, we're going to Ohio," he says." We ask how he's feeling this early in the morning. "Good!" he says. "You?" Not good. At least we get a laugh.
10:30 a.m.Wheels up on a flight for LaGuardia with an extremely dubious fate, given the nasty nor'easter that's gathering. But that's a whole 'nother story.