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Jay Z and Kanye West at SXSW: An embarrassment of riches

When attending South by Southwest, one is forced to negotiate a series of impossible choices. There are simply too many bands to see, so decisions get based on a series of criteria that range from venue proximity to line length to the cost of alcohol.

Jay Z and Kanye West played a two-hour show at SXSW on Wednesday that covered the entirety of their careers.
Jay Z and Kanye West played a two-hour show at SXSW on Wednesday that covered the entirety of their careers.Rick Kern/Getty Images for Samsung
Kanye West performs at SXSW
Kanye West performs at SXSWRick Kern/Getty Images for Samsung

Then you win tickets to see Jay Z and Kanye West and all those conundrums are solved for you.

The hottest ticket at SXSW, the show is officially billed as Samsung Galaxy® Concert Series with Jay Z + Kanye West, swept into Austin on Wednesday March 12 and the twin powers of hip-hop performed a two-hour set that affirmed their status as two of the biggest names in all of music.

Fittingly, the show was located at the Austin Music Hall, which just 24 hours earlier was hosting a traveling exhibit for "Game of Thrones." Kendrick Lamar may have been playing an iTunes-sponsored show at the same time just a block away, but for now, the Iron Throne is still occupied by ‘Ye and HOVA.

Ascending from the inside of two LED-screened cubes positioned opposite of one another, the duo opened their set with “HAM,” a bass-heavy banger that portended what was to come. At this point, the two veterans are no strangers to the stage, having both performed at arenas the world over as part of their respective tours over the last year. They brought that same out-sized charisma to the comparatively intimate Austin Music Hall, which was packed with fans who lined up as early as 9 a.m. to get into the show.

After performing several tracks from their 2011 collaborative album Watch the Throne, including “Otis,” “Who Gonna Stop Me,” and “Welcome to the Jungle” Kanye ceded the stage to Jay Z, who performed several songs of his most recent album Magna Carta Holy Grail.

Although his wife Beyonce was, sadly, not in attendance, some of the biggest cheers of the night came when he performed his verse from “Drunk in Love,” with Kanye adding his own verse from the remix. Then it was West's turn to perform solo tracks off of Yeezus, his brilliant 2013 album, and he was in fine form on songs like “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves.”

The sound itself was a little too bass-heavy “Good Life” in particular sounded blown-out and muddled but at around the hour mark, the two hit another gear, both individually and together. It’s almost easy to forget the staggering number of hits the two rappers have between them, but last night’s show served as a vivid reminder.

The back half of their set was essentially a greatest hits performance, as they traded turns onstage, with Jay Z running through songs like “IZZO,” “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” and “Empire State of Mind,” while Kanye performed “Runaway,” “Stronger,” and “All of the Lights.” The elevated stage put Kanye at eye-level and arms-length from the mezzanine, creating the effect of intimacy that the star probably hasn’t had in years, if ever. The duo wrapped up their show with Watch the Throne tracks “No Church in the Wild” and “N***as in Paris,” which, per tradition, they repeated three times until the crowd was sufficiently hype.

The spirit of the show ran counter to everything that SXSW once stood for and the surprise, last-minute announcement of the show felt like the latest shot in the ongoing battle between the two most popular cell phone brands, particularly when programmed opposite Kendrick Lamar at the iTunes Festival. There’s no point in bemoaning this, and I’m not; the rules have changed in Austin as SXSW continues to scale exponentially.

Multi-platinum artists playing massive shows at the behest of corporations is the new rule, not exception, and I’m happy that Samsung paid two of my favorite artists a truck-load of money to put on a two-hour show of their biggest hits. But it makes you wonder how the rappers playing 100-person venues will ever get to that level if they’re vying against the proven and popular.

That question is more philosophical than practical. For one night at least, I was happy to see big names play a big show brought to you by a big tech company; it was one less dilemma I was faced with.