Hip-hop rulers combine kingdoms
Jay-Z and Kanye’s ‘Throne’ album and tour show the power of the genre
If it came with a scratch ’n’ sniff sticker, “Watch the Throne’’ would smell like a shiny new car. A Rolls-Royce, to be exact. Everything about the album has the regal air of luxury, from the gold-plated artwork to the lyrical references to extreme wealth to the outsize personalities who made it.
And that title! Only Kanye West and Jay-Z, two rock stars masquerading as rappers, could get away with that. The message behind their new album together couldn’t be more pointed: Please step aside as Jay-Z and West keep a close watch over their kingdoms.
And now their two kingdoms have become one. When West and Jay-Z come to TD Garden on Monday, they’re bringing with them not just the marquee hip-hop event of the year, but also a juggernaut tour that proves just how supreme the genre reigns.
“I think it shows how strong hip-hop is, especially here in Boston,’’ says Dylan Sprague, program director for JAM’N 94.5, Boston’s most popular hip-hop radio station. “The ticket sales and album sales have been extraordinary, and I think it shows how hip-hop has evolved.’’
As of Wednesday, tickets were still available for the Garden show, but there’s a good chance it will sell out.
“If they price it right, hip-hop shows do well here,’’ says Tricia McCorkle, spokesperson for TD Garden, adding that the venue routinely hosts the annual Monster Jam concert (including this year’s show on Nov. 30 featuring Drake and Wiz Khalifa).
“It’s a huge tour. It’s not playing an enormous number of markets and I think they’ve carefully selected ones that are supportive of rap and hip-hop,’’ says Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar, the concert industry trade magazine. “It’s all major arenas, and they’re doing multiple nights in a number of places. That’s the best indication of how tickets are going, when they start adding more dates.’’
But West and Jay-Z are arguably the only duo in rap who could pack arenas night after night. Earlier this year Lil Wayne, fresh from prison, took Nicki Minaj and Rick Ross on the road with him, but the tour didn’t carry the same kind of heft. West and Jay-Z have been working together for at least a decade - West was one of the producers of Jay-Z’s “The Blueprint’’ in 2001 - and collectively their draw is vast, well beyond the 18-to-34 demographic.
Their new album together has spawned a few hits on urban radio, including “Otis’’ and rising single “[Expletive] in Paris,’’ but it hasn’t quite crash-landed into mainstream awareness. That’s beside the point, though. They don’t need a smash hit to rally their fans. It’s not as if no one saw Frank Sinatra in concert just because his latest wasn’t No. 1 on the charts.
Pup Dawg, music director for JAM’N, says other artists might appeal to a broad fan base, but no other pairing has the history that West and Jay-Z share. He sees their collaboration as a testament to each artist’s longevity.
“It shows you that old hip-hop is still around. People think that the music has gone very mass appeal, and it has, but Jay and Kanye are still doing what they’ve been doing for years,’’ he says.
Tickets for the Garden show top out at $247.50, but if you consider the caliber of the artists, that’s not extraordinary. Like it or not, that’s a common price range among heavyweights, regardless of genre. Certainly, Madonna and the Rolling Stones have done it. And when Carole King and James Taylor teamed up for a tour together last year, tickets went for as much as $350.
“If you think about it, Jay is worth $45 or $50 on his own and definitely Kanye, too,’’ Pup Dawg says. “It’s an event that people want to be a part of it and people want to say they were there.’’
The success of the album and tour trumpets a commercial peak for rap, but it also raises a critical question of just how far the genre has strayed from its streetwise origins.
“When I was growing up listening to rap, you always felt like you could see rappers in the street. And you could - at the car wash or at the mall. You could always relate to rap because it was inner-city music,’’ says J-Zone, a producer, DJ, and author of a new book about hip-hop culture called “Root for the Villain: Rap, [Expletive], and a Celebration of Failure.’’
“Somewhere along the line, entertainment has gone from what we can relate to to a distraction from our everyday lives,’’ he adds. “Rap became almost Hollywood in that if you’re an average person, why would you want to be reminded of your life? It’s like, ‘I want to see somebody else riding a jet even though I can’t afford to have health insurance.’ I think people are in awe of a life they’ll probably never see.’’
Pollstar’s Bongiovanni says West and Jay-Z’s recent two-night stand in Atlanta raked in more than $2 million. Maybe that’s why the two moguls recently took some heat for their support of Occupy Wall Street. West visited with protesters, and Jay-Z was criticized because his Rocawear fashion line was selling T-shirts that read “Occupy All Streets’’ without donating any of the proceeds to the cause.
Given their annual incomes, it’s safe to say these guys are not exactly among the 99 percent. Then again, there’s a fine line between making money and feeling empathy for those who don’t.
“You have no real way of knowing [their intentions]. Because they’ve reached a certain level of success, they’re also easy targets,’’ says J-Zone. “If one of them wants to donate to charity, someone would still say, ‘Yeah, but you crashed a $400,000 [car] for a video.’ To their admirers, they can do no wrong, but for people who look deep beneath the surface, they can do no right. They might as well have fun and do whatever they want to do. No matter what, there’s going to be somebody backing them up and somebody tearing them down.’’
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.