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(Above: Jay-Z and Kanye West battle sharks and charm the Sprint Center crowd during a recent “Watch the Throne” tour stop in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Hip hop superstars Jay-Z and Kanye West titled their first joint album and tour “Watch the Throne,” but they could have just as easily called it “Where’s the Recession?” Seats near the stage commanded $200 while many seats in the upper deck went for $50. The asking price on tour T-shirts at the concert was $45.

That’s a lot to ask of fans in these times, but the deep-pocketed mass (12,000) that crowded into the Sprint Center on Tuesday night got a lot of bang for its buck. The gigantic main stage looked like a sleek aircraft carrier, completely bare, save a DJ and pair of multi-instrumentalists hidden in the back.

A smaller stage set at the back of the floor. The main stage was flanked by two gigantic screens. A dozen flashpots, including one above the stage, walls of light and the best laser show this side of Pink Floyd completed the visual extravaganza. Topping it all off was nearly two and a half hours of music encompassing three dozen songs, two-thirds of which were Top 40 hits.

West and Jay-Z appeared  on opposite stages. As the duo opened with five songs from “Watch the Throne,” the stages below each performer grew, elevating each man on a two-story cube of video screens.

After the initial run of duets, the two alternated pairs of mini-sets, never intruding on the other’s material, but often appearing to back each other up, as on “Run This Town” or “Diamonds of the Sierra Leone.” A healthy sprinkling of “Throne” tunes ensured Jay-Z and West were never apart for long. By the end of the night the crowd was treated to 10 of “Throne”’s 16 songs.

Because there was no band, the songs stuck close to the original arrangements. This also meant that the rappers were the only people onstage. It takes a lot of showmanship to carry an audience alone for that long, but the number of hits, he amount of charisma and overall spectacle kept the crowd on its feet, dancing and waving with each beat for the entire set.

For the most part, the lack of live instruments didn’t hurt the material, but there were a few moments that were obviously strengthened by the supporting musicians, such as the guitar solo on “U Don’t Know Me” and keyboards on “Made in America.”

The tag-team of hits also contrasted the two performer’s styles. Jay-Z was more straightforward, wearing street clothes and devastating with his phonetic dexterity and intricate cadences. His big moments were frequently punctuated by pyrotechnics. West, on the other hand, wore a black leather kilt over his black leather pants and performed in near darkness, surrounded by lasers.

Each style brought its own high points. Jay-Z overpowered the crowd during “Public Service Announcement” and “On To the Next One” and had the house singing on “Empire State of Mind” and “Jigga What.” West’s best moment was an extended version of “Runaway” that found him standing atop a red cube on the second floor singing about his mistakes and ruminating on love. Completely invested in the moment, West dovetailed “Runaway” into another emotionally revealing number, “Heartless.” Later, West’s perfectionism got the best of him when he twice halted “All of the Lights” to fix a lighting cue.

For most of the night the set functioned like an meticulously calibrated mixtape, with each song setting up and naturally leading into the big number. Somehow the playlist got stuck on repeat during the night’s final song. Not only did the main set end with three runs through “N****s In Paris,” but the pair returned for two more takes as an encore. When the two left the stage for the final time it set off a series of sparklers across the state, but those fizzled in comparison to the fireworks delivered throughout the night.

Setlist: H.A.M.; Who Gon’ Stop Me; Otis, Welcome to the Jungle; Gotta Have It; Where I’m From; Jigga What, Jigga Who; Can’t Tell Me Nothing; Flashing Lights; Jesus Walks; All Falls Down; Diamonds from Sierra Leone (remix); Public Service Announcement; U Don’t Know; Run this Town; Monster; Power; Made in America; New Day; Hard Knock Life; Izzo (H.O.V.A.); Empire State of Mind; Runaway; Heartless; Stronger; On to the Next One; Dirt Off Your Shoulder; Give It To Me; That’s My B***h; Good Life; Touch the Sky; All of the Lights; Big Pimpin’; Gold Digger; 99 Problems; No Church in the Wild; N*****s In Paris. Encore: N****as In Paris.

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