Kanye West and Jay-Z have always worked an area of rap defined by the goalposts of opulence and introspection. Kanye, though, had to kick, fight and scream his way to hip-hop royalty; Jay started right at the fringe of braggart rap long before the style infiltrated hip-hop culture at the turn of the millennium. "Chilly with enough bail money to free a big Willy," he bragged on '96's "Can't Knock the Hustle."
Watch the Throne betrays the antithetical trajectory of two careers—Kanye, the flourishing star in love with the spoils of success but still adjusting to its hitches; Jay, who's discovering new ways to enjoy the show. "The Nets could go 0-82 and I'd look at you like this sh-t gravy," he says nonchalantly on "N--as in Paris." While Kanye is still exploring models and Hermes, Jay has moved on to Hublot, Basquiat, and unpronounceable French designers.
Where Kanye reigns supreme, however, is in the fabric of Watch the Throne. The album's musical direction is all Ye's. Kanye and a bevy of all-star producers (Q-Tip, RZA, Swizz Beatz, Mike Dean, 88 Keys, Hit-Boy, etc) keep the album dipped in 60s soul, James Brown samples, and dubstep stabs. Plush samples, synth showers, and piano chords soundtrack the duo's bragfest.
But after the luxury rap comes introspection. Side B finds the pair pumping their breaks on braggadocio and pondering the deceptive American Dream, friendships, injustice, religion, and immortality. Kanye exerts his will on the album's revelatory tracks and helps Jay-Z discover how stunningly human he sounds when the royal veil is peeled back. On the Nina Simone-sampling "New Day," for instance, they write a letter to their future sons in the vein of 2Pac's "Letter 2 My Unborn." Powerful stuff.
Over the pulsating hi-hats and hands-to-the-sky piano strokes of "Made in America," R&B prince Frank Ocean croons a love poem to "Sweet King Martin, Sweet Brother Malcolm," among other martyrs. Kanye kicks off the song with a vengeful rags-to-riches tale, while Jay-Z follows up with the most vivid portrait of his street days yet. Grandma never knew why young Shawn was always boiling water in the wee hours: "The scales was lopsided, I'm just restoring order/Hold up, here comes gradnma/What's up YaYa/What's that smell?/Oh, I'm just boiling some aqua/No papa, bad Santa/The streets raised me, pardon my bad manners," Jay pleads.
Later, they bemoan gun violence on the sprawling "Murder 2 Excellence." Riding itchy rhythms and a funereal children's choir, Jay-Z wistfully recalls the death of 20-year-old Pace student Danroy Henry, while Kanye compares Iraq war casualties with Chicago murder victims. Then the song switches to a head-nodder about black success. "Only spot a few blacks the higher I go," Jay raps. It literally shifts from murder narrative to celebration of black excellence; from gore to glory, from night to day. Still, the stench of inequality overpowers the aroma of success.
The longest tracks on Watch the Throne are the thought-provoking ones: "Murder 2 Excellence," "Made in America," and "New Day" in that order. Coincidence? I doubt it.
Jay-Z and Kanye aren't merely paying lip service to weighty issues. But they're not in total command of the conscious style, either. They're subtle and restrained rather than salient and provocative; clever and charismatic rather than furiously Afrocentric. The glimpses of introspection and social commentary hardly rival the depths of what you'll find on, say, a Black Star album, but Throne is still plenty interesting. Social commentary was never their specialty, anyway. What Watch the Throne offers, instead, is signature Jay-Z, soulful Kanye West, and stark honesty, all laid atop innovative production. It's not the instant classic heads were hoping for, but it boasts several outstanding moments.
Under the garish boasts of Watch the Throne is also a subtle but complex tale of friendship. Jay-Z and Kanye defeat expectations by avoiding obvious references to their own relationship. There's no "Big Brother" here. Instead, they stand side by side and shake a stick at a common enemy, namely the mess of animosities their monarch attracts. Their friendship may be a delicate one, but you'll never find yourself questioning its legitimacy.
For all their dichotomies, they display infallible chemistry throughout. In fact, this may be the only time Kanye has been comfortable ceding power to another mortal. And with Jay-Z hogging the mic, Ye busies himself on the boards. Their formula is simple yet successful: Jay-Z asserts himself lyrically, Kanye plays the king's loyal fiddler, as exemplified on "Why I Love You." Ultimately, the sum of the two is almost as great as the individual parts.Top Tracks
- "N--as in Paris"
- "Made in America"
- "New Day"
- "Murder 2 Excellence"