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Kanye West and Jay-Z – Watch the Throne

"Watch the Throne"

Kanye West and Jay-Z – Watch the Throne
16 August 2011, 09:00 Written by Tyler Boehm

In the past few years, rap has entered a rebellious phase in which insurgents as diverse as Odd Future and Waka Flocka Flame have refocused hip-hop from bragging about the good life to gleefully rapping about violence and anti-social behavior. Meanwhile, crazy geniuses/weirdos (take your pick) like Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane and Lil B eschewed major label releases to build their careers through DIY mixtapes and internet promotion.

Along with Wayne, Eminem and Rick Ross, Kanye West and Jay-Z are the last great hip hop stars. But while Kanye has risen to be the most vital artist working in music through the steady release of ever more ornate masterpieces, Jay has sounded increasingly clueless (see last year’s ‘H•A•M,’ included here as a bonus track, on which Jay sounds totally lost while trying to wrap his flow around rising super producer Lex Luger’s neo-crunk fight-music). So while Watch the Throne is an exciting proposition based solely on the collaboration of Kanye and Jay, its success as a piece of music was far from assured by its participants alone.

Watch the Throne, while definitely no classic, for the most part succeeds. The most thrilling moments deliver on the promise of the blockbuster pairing, as on ‘Gotta Have It’ with Jay and Kanye trading lines back and forth (Jay: “Niggas hate ballers these days” Kanye: “Ain’t that like LeBron James” Jay: “Ain’t that just like D-Wade?”) and on the spare, pounding ‘Niggas in Paris’ with both rappers going hard.

Instead of rapping in his recent style of over-emphasizing his words and hammering home ever obvious punchline, Jay for the most part goes back to his wonderful old flow. Maybe the lines aren’t as jam-packed with allusions as they once were, and he never just totally kills it in a way that makes you want to rewind and listen to a verse over and over, but Jay-Z is rapping well for the first time in a while and that’s pretty thriling in itself.

The full-length collaboration with Kanye also seems to have inspired Jay to think more about what he’s saying. He has a beautiful verse on the spacey and haunting RZA produced ‘New Day’ that imagines what it would be like to be his son. Meanwhile, Kanye, his voice sounding a bit weary, paints a picture of luxury and hedonism through bars often built of short, discrete lines ending in feminine rhymes (for example, “Deception is the only felony/so never fuck anyone without telling me/Sunglasses and Advil/Last night was mad real” on ‘No Church in the Wild’).

Of course, West’s greatest contribution here is his production. From the strutting, fuzzy guitar line that opens the album, to the way he flips Otis Redding’s soul-shouting on ‘Otis’ (like a hark back to his Ray Charles sampling on ‘Gold digger’) to the powerful stuttering synths on ‘Who Gon to Stop Me’, to the odd old-timey guitar and horn interstitial that pops up again and again, Kanye imbues the album with a diverse, rich musicality.

Still, there are a few too many missteps to fall totally in love with the record. On a couple songs, we get a great verse from one rapper only for the other other to totally miss on his. On ‘That’s My Bitch’, we get a fun verse from Kanye before Jay reverts to didactic overemphasis. Elsewhere, Jay’s great ‘New Day’ verse is marred by Kanye’s lunkheaded self-pitying. Under the guise of explaining what he wants for his (fictional) son, Kanye recounts his perceived persecution (“I’ll never let him ever hit the telethon/I mean even if people dying and the world ends”) before declaring that “I just want him to have an easy life/Not a Yeezy life/…don’t want him to be hated all the time, judged.”

This verse encapsulates the surprise disappointment of the album. Kanye’s been a fascinating rapper because of the almost dialectical way he both celebrates hip-hop’s hedonism and feels conflicted over it, but on Watch the Throne he sounds so trapped in his own narcissism that it’s often hard to like him. Both Kanye and Jay-Z take Watch the Throne as an opportunity to explore what it means to be black and successful in today’s America and to shape their legacies, both in terms of music and capital-h History.

The album opens with Frank Ocean, a member of the explicitly atheist and anti-establishment Odd Future, singing “Human beings in a mob/What’s a mob to a king/What’s a king to a god/What’s a a god to a non-believer” on ‘No Church in the Wild’ and it feels like Kanye and Jay’s acknowledgement that they may be irrelevant to a new generation.

After they spend the next ten songs making their case for relevancy, Ocean comes back for the beautiful, penultimate track ‘Made in America’. But this time he sings sweetly as a believer, “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.” Over mellow drums and synths, the song tells the stories of the rappers’ respective rags-to-riches stories (Kanye through music; Jay through drug-dealing) by framing them provocatively as part of a larger narrative of African-Americans’ social progress. The song comes close to fulfilling Watch the Throne’s ambitious themes and it would be a graceful and poignant way to end the album.

Instead, the album closes with ‘Why I Love You,’ a noisy, self-aggrandizing lament that for all Kanye and Jay-Z have done for the world, people are still ungrateful. In the end, moments like this keep Watch the Throne from reaching the transcendent heights of both Kanye West and Jay-Z’s greatest work, and yet they still somehow don’t make it any less fascinating.

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