With Jay-Z and Kanye West so firmly planted atop of hip-hop’s royal dais, Watch The Throne begs listeners to bask in their glory rather than battle all challengers.
The album’s entire existence is risky and grandiose, but ultimately an understandable testament to the magnetism the two emcees have. Still, what does either stand to gain from it?
Side projects can go so wrong. Especially when the biggest stars realize they can release a recording of themselves doing something they’re not even good at or in a genre they know next to nothing about and someone will still buy it. We’ve seen “passion projects” unseat chart-toppers looking to expand in the past.
WATCH HIP HOP FANS DEBATE WHO’S BETTER: KANYE OR JAY-Z?
The Throne finds Jay-Z and West in a completely different scenario. Much like the Miami Heat experiment, here are two giants individually, who’d shared the spotlight in smaller capacities before, deciding to team up, encouraging the hype and preparing for something potentially epic.
For Jay-Z, it’s a different spin on his ritual summer success and yet another way for him to distance himself from the pack in terms of what aging rappers can do. For Kanye West, it further cements his rise from Jay-Z’s producer, to his protégé, and finally now, his equal. The musical conspiracy theorists will point to Jay-Z’s lyrics about his only competition being in the mirror as subtle jabs at his place as the king and West as the prince, but rarely on this album do you get that vibe.
The vibe you do get is from its onset is an expected leap forward in production. Spearheaded by West, with the likes of RZA, Q-Tip, The Neptunes, 88-Keys, S1 and Swizz Beatz contributing. It’s not as daring as West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy but is certainly as stark and different. It’s a pop album with no real pop qualities other than its pieces. How it will suit long-time listeners is yet to be seen but it will definitely unsettle some who can’t find anything to compare it to.
West does takes a noticeable step back lyrically but this warrants a debate as the whether his prowess was a casualty of the collaboration and his focus on avant garde production or an acutely executed F.U. by him to prove he doesn’t have to be on at all times. His confidence will convince you that it’s the latter not the former case.
Jay-Z flashes a familiar flexibility that adds to his deep reservoir of quotables. Gems like “I’m planking on a million” stand out around insightful analogies and witty rhymes like, “Graduated to the MoMA and I did all of this without a diploma.” It’s safe to say Hov carries the lion’s share of verses.
But the real joy was how well their flows paired together without feeling like a clashing giants. West is at his best on Watch The Throne on tracks like “Gotta Have It” where they mesh seamlessly.
Together, the two kick out perfectly pompous bars that are at times shockingly grandiose — which for them is hard to do — and at others required instant rewinds just to make sure they said what you thought they did.
The royal court of guest features includes Beyoncé — who does what she can to carry the forgettable “Lift Off” — as well as more frequent West collaborator, Mr Hudson, and a notable newcomer in Frank Ocean. Ocean seems to be replacing the roles generally played by John Legend or Ne-Yo and delivers an understated hook for the jarringly boring “No Church in the Wind” — which strangely set the tone for the album, suggesting this may not be what you want or expect but this is what it is.
He also delivers an awkwardly executed tribute to fallen civil rights leaders “Made In America” which had a Casio keyboard meets Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” vibe and the weirdly heartfelt and remedially repetitive, “sweet baby Jesus” lines.
That criticism aside, there were some really strong songs here. “Ni**a In Paris” changes the entire complexion of the album and leads to a string of can’t skip tracks including that previously dropped “Otis,” as well as “That’s My B*tch,” “Who Gon Stop Me” and “Murder to Excellence” which are as compelling as they were opulent.
Easily the most impressive accomplishment from Watch The Throne is how the pair prevented the album from leaking. By guarding tracks so tightly, no tracks were floating around that weren’t released by them all the way up to the albums’ midnight release. That’s absolutely unheard of in the digital music era and according to XXL meant no emailing tracks, no label copies and both parties having to be in the same room for every studio session and listening party.
Ultimately, there some chinks in their armor. But as far as the eye can see, there is no real threats to the throne on the horizon. It may not have been the masterpiece out of the gate that the streets, blogs and even boardrooms are clamoring for, but few artists as big will come close to unseating this social media moment, point of debate and undoubtedly, chart staple. As time moves on, lyrics are learned and opinions shift, watch talking points of the album change.