ALBUM REVIEW: Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch The Throne

JAY-Z KANYE WEST WATCH THE THRONE
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B+ | 8.08.11 | Roc-A-Fella | Stream | Mog | MP3 | CD

Welcome to a shot at legacy. A stab at doing something different and, in doing so, rekindling the hunger that can so often be sated by success. Welcome to Watch the Throne, a treaty that the two kings of hip hop hope will strengthen their empire against all comers. “In the mirror, where I see my only enemy,” raps Kanye West on “The Joy,” the Curtis Mayfield-sampling track that closes the deluxe album. “King Hov, I’m exactly what the fuck you think,” spits Jay-Z on “Illest Motherfucker Alive.” These are two men at untouchable points in their careers. These are our tragic heroes.

Watch The Throne is, in many ways, a return home for Jay-Z and Kanye, who first worked together when West produced four standout tracks on Jay’s canonical The Blueprint. As a mini-documentary of Watch The Throne’s recording process highlights, Kanye was merely a fan – he was in the audience for Jay-Z’s Hard Knock Life Tour – until Jay-Z “minted” him, signing him to Roc-A-Fella Records. This time around, though, they take the microphone as near equals. Jay-Z has seven more years and millions more dollars – and he easily outraps Kanye, for the most part – but both have proven (and West most recently) that they are at the top of the hip hop game. The potential of a collaborative album is scintillating.

The result is only slightly less so, surpassing the bleakest estimates by leaps and bounds. This is no Blueprint, nor does it reach the artistry of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but neither is it a phoned-in money grab. The songs alternate between menacing, euphoric, and profound, on top of beats that follow the same patterns. A slew of talented producers steer the album away from the lush interplay of Kanye’s recent work and the pop sheen of The Blueprint III, toward a middle ground that removes both artists from comfort zones without sounding uncomfortable. That Jay-Z and Kanye decided to expand the Throne project from an EP to a full-length album shows that they enjoyed the process and that they had something to say.

Of course, much of what they have to say is sheer braggadocio. This isn’t humility rap, not by a longshot. Verses sag under the weight of brand names – Hublot and Rolex; Maybach, Benz, and Lamborghini; Gucci, Manolo, Margiela, and more. Both rappers reference their art collections and neither shies away from flaunting their wealth. Of course, if you expected an album from two of the top-paid rappers alive – an album with gold-plated cover art, no less – to be void of posturing, you’re crazy.  Kanye incessantly uses fashion as a status check, both on and off record; Jay-Z isn’t just a businessman, he’s a business, man. As he raps on “Ni**as In Paris,” “The Nets could go 0 for 82 and I’d look at you like this shit gravy.”

But Watch The Throne is more than just brags and boasts. This is a shot at legacy. As Jay lays out just a few lines later, “I’m liable to be go Michael/Take your pick: Jackson, Tyson, Jordan (Game 6).” The Game 6 addendum is telling. Jay-Z and Kanye West aren’t content with their place among the greats – they still want to be legends in their finest hour, remembered for generations. Kanye rapped on last year’s “Monster,” “I’m living the future so the present is my past.” Jay-Z says it in a more kingly way here, on “Made In America”: “Built a republic, that still stands/I’m tryna lead a nation to leave to my little mans.”

The hallmarks of legacy and family are imprinted all over this album, with both rappers focusing on generations past and future. On “New Day,” in particular, the pair address future scions over a RZA-aided beat that distorts Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” nearly beyond recognition. It’s a touching and sometimes vulnerable track that combines introspection with advice to future progeny. “Teach ya good values so you cherish it,” spits Jay. “It took me 26 years to find my path/My only job is cut the time in half.” Kanye joins in as well, with promises for the future. “I’ll never let my son have an ego/He’ll be nice to everyone, wherever we go.” Here more than anywhere on Watch The Throne, though, the differences between Kanye and Jay are laid bare. Jay is restrained and confident, while West seizes the track as an opportunity to defend himself in the form of his offspring: “I just want ‘em to have an easy life/Not like Yeezy life/Just want ‘em to be someone people like/Don’t want ‘em to be hated all the time judged/Don’t be like your daddy that would never budge.” Methinks he doth protest a whole bunch, and it makes him look a little less regal.

The family talk isn’t limited to sons and daughters, either. In another moment that highlights the differences in the two rappers’ lives, Jay-Z follows a sour-grapes Kanye verse with adoration for his wife Beyonce, saying, “You belong in museums/You belong in vintage clothes crushing the whole building/You belong with ni**as who used to be known for dope dealin’/You too dope for any of those civilians.” On “Welcome To The Jungle,” Jay reflects on the deaths of his father, uncle, and nephew, which left him “paralyzed by the pain,” and on “Made In America” Kanye thanks his mother’s for kickstarting his career. These men may be at the top of the hip hop world, but they haven’t stopped looking around.

Perhaps the most unexpected turn from Jay and Ye comes on “Murder To Excellence,” which is dedicated to Danroy Henry, a 20-year-old black Pace University student who was killed by police in Westchester, NY. On the track, the dynamic duo hold themselves up as paragons of black success, lamenting the abundance of black-on-black crime and the paucity of role models in the black community. “I’m from the murder capital, where they murder for capital,” says Kanye, referencing Chicago. Later, he pinpoints a particularly violent weekend on his way into the chorus: “41 souls murdered in 50 hours/The paper read murder/Black on black murder/The paper read murder/Black on black murder again.” Jay-Z looks at the flip side later in the song. “Only spot a few blacks the higher I go,” he says, “What’s up to Will, shoutout to O.” It’s a watershed moment for the pair and an explicit acknowledgment that Watch The Throne is more mission statement than vanity project.

Though its moments of gravitas surpass expectations, Watch The Throne is far from a flawless work. More than anything, the album suffers from peculiar sequencing and lack of cohesive vision, a unexpected misstep from any project involving the meticulous Mr. West. The album feels a bit slapdash, with fits and starts and half ideas about progression that never seem to resolve. Opening track “No Church In The Wild” builds momentum like a bullet train, but loses it nearly instantaneously at the hands of a flow-killing instrumental outro. That same instrumental snippet appears elsewhere on the album, seemingly at random, following “New Day” (track six) and “Welcome To The Jungle (track eight) and leading into the album’s first bonus track, “Illest Motherfucker Alive” – a track that also sports a puzzling 3 minutes of silence at its outset.

That small snippet is one of a few unexplained and haphazard choices on the album. Soul samples from legends like Otis Redding, Curtis Mayfield and Simone are hacked to bits while “Why I Love You” hardly lays a finger on an extensive (and uninteresting) Cassius sample. Elsewhere, “Ni**as In Paris” sports two Will Ferrell sound bites from Blades of Glory, the latter of which goes miles towards describing the duo’s sometime aesthetic: “No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative.”

The messy composition is a particularly stark contrast to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the last album from either of these artists. That album, which received nearly universal acclaim, was plotted and planned, with West fastidiously tweaking each element with a perfectionist concentration. Here, that level of fine-tuning is conspicuously absent. Jay and Ye recorded this album side-by-side – using different studios on different continents but always hitting the studio together – but Watch The Throne seems like it could benefit from some clearer editorial oversight. One problem with being king is it’s harder to find someone to ask why a string is left dangling. Two heads, when it comes to finishing touches, may not be better than one.

But for every questionable decision or unrealized path, there are equally brilliant moments on Watch The Throne. It’s refreshing to hear Jay and Ye sawing back and forth over beats on tracks like “Otis,” “Gotta Have It,” and “Why I Love You,” going couplet-for-couplet and line-for-line. There are few stop and rewind moments, lyrically, but there is an overarching confidence and exuberance that lives in each track. As they themselves put it, “Jay is chillin’, ‘Ye is chillin’, what more can I say?”

Rising Odd Future R&B singer Frank Ocean gets a star turn as well, eclipsing vocals from Beyonce, The Dream, and others. Ocean provides the first vocals on the album, singing the hook on “No Church In The Wild,” but it is on “Made In America” that he truly steals the spotlight. With a velvety voice he calls out civil rights leaders and religious figures while Jay-Z and West retrace their histories. “Sweet King Martin/Sweet Queen Coretta/Sweet Brother Malcolm/Sweet Queen Betty/Sweet Mother Mary/Sweet Father Joseph/Sweet Jesus/We made it in America,” sings Ocean in a voice that, as he puts it, will “bring you out the darkness.”

Watch The Throne had the potential to be a victory lap for Kanye West and Jay-Z, and to some extent it still is. This album is built on two cults of personality and two larger-than-life personas. Yet in execution it is remarkably intimate, noteworthy more for eschewing grandeur than for exalting it. Gold cover and pompous title aside, Watch The Throne furthers the legacy of Jay-Z and Kanye West in an unexpected way, displaying the artists in a more laid-back setting than anticipated. In retrospect, it all makes sense; the album’s final couplet is a fitting one. “We victorious. They’ll never take the joy from us.”

Stream Watch The Throne in full here

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