It happened: Jay-Z and Kanye West teamed up to create Watch the Throne, the pair’s industry sea-parting and most ambitious album yet. Full of grandiose opulence and gaudy beats, Watch the Throne is the most polarizing musical force of 2011. It’s packed with a variety of sounds: two-for-one song transitions, Lex Luger 808 freak-outs and, much to the dismay of Hip-Hop purists, the skittering bass womps of dubstep and house music. It’s also awash in extravagant product name drops such as Lanvin t-shirts and Miele home appliances—the likes of which deserve exhibits in The Met as opposed to lyrical boasts. Watch the Throne is an album for everyone and no one at the same time.
The dawning of this modernist opera, “No Church In the Wild,” lays a proper foundation to such an audacious effort. Bringing along the few guests on the album—a crooning, sublimely utilized Frank Ocean—the deep, muffled bass escalates subtly as Ocean states, “What’s a mob to a king?/What’s a king to a God?” Hov and ‘Ye then launch into their first verses from their pulpits, as Mr. Carter proclaims, “Jesus was a carpenter, Yeezy laid beats/Hova flow the Holy Ghost, get the Hell up out your seats/Preach.” The bouncing rhythms of “Lift Off” and the stark rattles of “N****s In Paris” follow, setting the stage for the braggadocio fest “Otis.”
Beats abound in all measure, but “Otis” remains the lone moment where old-school fans of both artists will find the most comfort food. The bars come in sharp daggers: “Damn Yeezy and Hov, where the hell you been?/n****s talking real reckless, stuntman/I adopted these n****s, Phil Drummond ‘em.” Although “Gotta Have It” continues the throbbing bass jabs of previous tracks, “New Day” (with the help of recent production partner, RZA) slows the tempo. The two lament over past mistakes and future promises, prompting ‘Ye to mention, “I’ll never let my son have an ego/he’ll be nice to everyone no matter where we go.” It’s one of the few moments on the album that allows soul-searching and introspection—both a blessing and a curse for the effort.
Continuing on with the former’s bombastic ethos, it’s “Who Gon’ Stop Me” and the Mr. Hudson-assisted “Why I Love You” that stand as the most interesting later takes. Both affirm the ascension of electronic club music into the mainstream, as Flux Pavillion’s heady original and Cassius’ maniacal “I Love You So” pound and maraud respectively. The woozy, Ocean-lead “Made In America” injects greater meaning to the project as a whole, as Kanye and Jay pay homage to the revolutionary African-American leaders of the past. Over Ocean’s “Oh sweet Baby Jesus, we made it in America,” both MCs salute the work of past leaders as testament to their current success.
However, disjointed moments can be found—if only through nitpicking. “Lift Off,” while giving the album its appealing “pop” hit, remains a step above an instrumental track. Beyonce appears, but her singing coupled with West’s de-Auto-Tuned attempt leaves more to be desired. Where “Lift Off” has little in the way of rhyming, other tracks, such as the aforementioned “N****s In Paris” and the Morse code-ish “Welcome to the Jungle,” see standstill bars that would better befit a Maybach Music artist.
Critics will posit that the album’s flash and unbridled demonstration of wealth is the duo’s glaring weakness, especially considering the hard economic situation of present-day America. However, this accusation is moot. If an artist’s best work comes from writing what he/she knows, why wouldn’t this be a thematic staple? Jay is past detailing his hustler credentials and Yeezy’s seemingly over his denigration of the U.S.’ higher education system. Watch the Throne is the artists’ logical end content-wise and, more than anything, provides an escapist—if not imaginary—medium for the listener to discover.
Watch the Throne won’t live on to become a genre classic, especially compared next to Reasonable Doubt or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. That much can be agreed between Watch the Throne’s critics and supporters. It is, however, a damn good album that packs wallop from beginning to end and that’s the point. Whether one loves it or absolutely hates it, Jay and ‘Ye did what they wanted to do. They’re occupying the throne. Praise their efforts or start throwing rocks at it.
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Roc Nation/Def Jam | Producers: Kanye West, Swizz Beatz, RZA, The Neptunes, Q-Tip, Pete Rock, No I.D., Jeff Bhasker, Mike Dean, Hit-Boy, 88-Keys, Don Jazzy, S1, Sham “Sak Pase” Joseph, Southside, Anthony Kilhoffer, Ken Lewis