It’s a little confused about what “Watch the Throne” means. Is it what Kanye West and Jay-Z think their doing on their new album–literally watching, or protecting the rap throne that they earned over the past three years? Or are they telling us, the audience to watch them, as they are the only two Kings on the current hip-hop throne. The first seems kind of silly considering that dance music is the new hip-hop, and the second is feels a little too literal since Watch The Throne is easily the most anticipated record of the year. Regardless of what they’re trying to say with the album/group name, there’s no question what the record is about: excess. From the cover art to the Google-ready high society rhyme references to the shear enormity of the production, everything screams ‘we are in our own league and you can’t touch us.’
Watch The Throne takes bling rap to a new level. Rather than just talking about cars and jewelry, the new swag is art galleries, couture fashion, and coked-out models that don’t speak English. Unfortunately, we don’t get much more from the dynamic duo. The deepest they go is on “New Day” where each ponders the future of their unborn sons. Now this doesn’t mean that the tracks don’t bang, and that they’re aren’t some great lyrical moments. But it’s a shame that Jay and ‘Ye focus so much of their efforts stating the obvious.**
Standout tracks include “That’s My Bitch,” “Otis” and opener “No Church in the Wild” where Mr. West slays it with “Sunglasses and Advil/Last night was mad real/Sun coming at 5 a.m./I wonder if they got cabs still/thinkin’ bout the girl in all leopard/who was rubbing the wood like Kiki Shepard/two tatoos, one red, no apologies/the other said love is cursed by monogamy.”
Watch the Throne feels like a Kanye West record that features Jay-Z on every song. The vibe is on the same wavelength of My Dark Twisted Fantasy, and the production is still dark, focusing more on atmosphere than radio-ready hits. Sure, the Jigga Man lays down some nice verses, but it feels like he’s trying to fit into a designer suit that’s just a few sizes to big.
For all the posturing and braggadocio, hype and expectation, there’s a moment on “Ni**as in Paris” where the Kanye we came to love (and frankly miss a little) shines through. There are two Will Farrell samples on the track, but the second one makes so much sense, that it’s like Kanye is letting us in one the joke, and that despite all the bullshit and haters, he knows what he’s doing. After spitting, “Doctors say I’m the illest/Cause I’m sufferin’ from realness/Got my ni**as in Paris/And the going gorillas/Huh?” comes Farrell from Blades of Glory saying “No one knows what it means. But it’s provocative…it gets the people going.” Kanye West is the only producer in the world with the balls to sample a scene from an ice skating comedy, and the only person in the world who could make what’s supposed to be silly, feel relevatory.
When you’re on the level of Kanye West and Jay-Z, it almost doesn’t matter what people think. They’ll buy the record, they’ll pay to see the tour, they’ll say it ain’t as good as Reasonable Doubt and College Dropout. It’s easy to hate from outside the club. But the fact that the two best acts in hip-hop joined forces for a landmark release is not only a cool moment in music, but something that will be looked back on many years from now as a game changer in the record industry. In the punk scene, the 7″ split is a rite of passage. Watch the Throne is taking that concept to the masses.
Ultimately, Graduation remains West’s greatest work. Watch the Throne is ambitious, important and a very solid album, but without any pop-crossover potential, it’s not the instant classic fans were hoping for.
For a much deeper, analytical review of Watch the Throne, check out Grantland.
**[ED: Upon repeated spins, the three track arch of “Who Gon Stop Me”, “Murder to Excellence”, and “Made in America” is an attempt at something weightier, but the songs come off very strange and lyrically misguided. Kanye starts the sequence by saying that losing his people is “something like the Holocaust” which just feels ignorant, even for him. Then on the first half of “Murder” the two emcees trade rhymes on the plight of the inner city and black on black crime, which then somehow morphs into a “celebration of black excellence,” or most boasting of opulence and elitism. The message being, stop killing each other and strive to be like us, rich and out of touch! The trifecta finishes with “America”‘s chorus evoking the names of historical African-American leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X along with Jesus and Mother Mary. Not only does the chorus not work as a hook, but it feels like Kanye and Jay are elevating themselves into that category with their supposedly humble tales of early struggles. If Kanye and Jay have such a problem with black on black violence and truly want to “redefine black power” then maybe they should try to follow in the footsteps of the people they shout out, and spend less time shouting out how much money they have. Instead, they could put their wealth to good use–stop telling us about the problem, and be a part of the solution.