When Watch The Throne dropped in 2011, it was an event, a once-in-a-lifetime meeting of minds that felt special because it was.
Six years later, with the release of Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho the latest in a seemingly interminable string of middling to mediocre collaborative rap projects, I just wish rappers would realize that maybe, just maybe, they can’t recapture that lightning in a bottle and stop trying to.
In 2017 alone, we had Super Slimey, Without Warning, and the aforementioned Huncho Jack, with rumors of a Future/Nicki Minaj joint project. Fans continued to wheedle Top Dawg Entertainment for a non-existent J. Cole/Kendrick Lamar project so badly that label president Punch had to formally issue news of the project’s demise on Twitter — even though it had never been a plan for either TDE or Dreamville since fans got it in their heads they wanted it some three years ago.
Even Drake and Future’s much-anticipated 2015 pairing What A Time To Be Alive was a disappointment, if not an outright stinker, which leads to the question: Why do fans keep demanding these albums when so many of them have failed to live up to expectations?
When two MCs rock a track together, there is often an effect akin to the combinations of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’ Neal, or LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. In short, they make each other better. A top competitor meets his or her match and elevates his or her game — whether out of competition, like the Bryant/Shaq combo that three-peated the NBA championship in the 2000’s or by a metaphysical, platonic pairing like the James/Wade Miami combination that saw them perfectly come together like yin-and-yang.
Another analogy would be akin to a Hall of Fame quarterback being matched with an All-Pro wide receiver. Each plays their role to their absolute peak and finds their ideal match, someone who ensures that every effort they make will be mirrored and matched by a complementary partner.
That’s why Watch The Throne was so successful. At that point in their careers, both Jay-Z and Kanye West were peaking (arguably, Jay was just beginning a downslide, making him even more of an ideal pairing with Kanye, who had just dropped one of his most critically-acclaimed albums ever). Both were on just uncertain enough ground to make it the needed left turn into unexpected to temporarily halt Jay’s eventual decline (it still hasn’t happened yet, somehow, but in 2012, we all felt sure it was coming) and maintain Kanye’s ascent.
They were both arrogant and extravagant, but in subtly different ways that meant neither was stepping on the other’s toes. Jay was coolly laid-back, casually counting his millions from the mountaintop, while Kanye was all fire and passion still, his artistic obsessions bouncing off of Jay’s in interesting ways. Jay-Z was like the wise old ruler whose campaigning days were behind him; Kanye was the heir apparent, still fighting to carve out his kingdom. Jay had jewels to drop for a Kanye who was sharpening his martial craft in preparation to take the crown.
The reason Quavo and Travis, Future and Thug, or 21 and Offset don’t work is because they never give this feeling. While each is a rising star in their own right, none is an All-Star or anywhere near the top of the rap game, whether objectively or by consensus. There’s still so much debate whether or not any of them can even rap, let alone being the best in the game at it, that it seems silly to get excited to see them collaborate in the hopes of elevating their craft. Are any of them even at the top of their own respective game? The survey says, “Not yet.”
Another problem that arises is in the construction of these projects themselves. While Throne was handcrafted on-location like a Peter Jackson film — Jay and Kanye were actually in the locations they rapped about, looking at the art they discussed, and able to afford every single expensive thing they boasted at owning. There’s absolutely no way 21 Savage is catching that many bodies and while I believe Offset actually owns all those choppers and Uzis, what’s he really doing with them now that he’s famous? Put the pair on too many songs together and their trap metaphors and endless gun talk not only wears thin, it frays completely apart, making you wonder what the point of putting them together in the first place was. To return to sports metaphors, it’s putting two high-volume, high-usage, low-efficiency shooters on the same team. They both hunt for their own buckets, devolving into a tiresome, ineffective offense that results in more net losses than wins.
You can tell that the verses are being constructed like any other verse in each rappers oeuvre. They aren’t pushing themselves or each other. There’s a slapdash approach like one rapper completes a song and the other simply tacks on their bars over a completed song. A common complaint of What A Time was that it sounded much like a Future album with Drake guest spots; a similar accusation was leveled at Super Slimey, with many observers saying it sounded too much like a Young Thug album with a bunch of Future on it (similarly to how Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele “featured” Raekwon). The kismet of kindred souls vibing and elevating one another’s craft is non-existent on all of 2017’s collaborative albums. While each has one or two hits, there aren’t enough “wow” moments to justify entire ten-song projects, which lose their novelty and run out of gas halfway in.
When executed properly, a collaborative album can be a tremendous cultural moment. Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s Black Star album arguably shifted the cultural conversation around rap as a whole when it dropped, becoming the standard borne by underground hip-hop heads railing against sell-out mainstream rap for the better part of a decade. Watch The Throne generated real excitement and set Jay-Z and Kanye West’s moment as joint rulers of rap in gold-plated bronze for future generations to hold up as an example of how to do the joint album correctly.
But the hacky, gimmicky, rushed and ungainly attempts at creating those cultural moments out of nothing, that’s got to stop. Rappers aren’t going to achieve that alchemical result until they’re willing to put in the blood, sweat, tears, and time to earn the equivalent exchange. I don’t doubt for an instant that the next rulers of rap will come from the current crop of whippersnappers, but they need more time to hone their craft, learn the game, and build their respective kingdoms. They’ve each got decent little fiefdoms, but the throne is reserved for those who can oversee the entire rap game. Until then, maybe their aspirations should be to do exactly what Jay and Kanye told us all to do six years ago. Watch — and learn.