I hope you guys don’t crucify me like D.Dot, but Watch the Throne did show up in my iTunes eight minutes early, and I’ve spent the time since 11:52 PM treating today like hip-hop Christmas morning. Watch The Throne was a big deal before we even listened to it, because of the names involved, the secrecy of its release (it avoided a major leak without having to be released by surprise like Lil B‘s I’m Gay) and the audaciousness of the two songs we’ve heard so far (“Otis” is nothing less than bold, whatever your thoughts on it). But is Watch the Throne: the album on par with Watch the Throne: the embodiment of hype?
Clearly, the album has a habit of twisting one’s words into hyperbole, and that makes it difficult to get an honest idea of how it fits in to both artists legacy. The first impression, and it’s a strong one, is fairly easy to read, even after only a few listens: Watch the Throne is a tribute to Jay-Z and Kanye West‘s own catalogue, their legacy and the history of their relationship.
I think of it as an original greatest hits album. The album is littered with homages to the artists pasts, shining through in some of the samples, the occasional peculiar vocal style, and the occasional direct quote. It’s an outrageous premise, but one that should have been anticipated as soon as the title of the collaboration was announced: the album screams “allow me to re-introduce myself” to the rest of their body of work.
It comes across mostly in the way the album makes you want to listen to other Jay-Z or Kanye songs (mostly Jay-Z songs Kanye produced, although not exclusively). Listen to the short vocal sample on “Welcome to the Jungle” and the way the beat builds: clear echoes of Jay-Z’s “Takeover.” “Lift Off” sounds reminiscent of 808s and Heartbreak-era Kanye, but perfected (even Hov mimics the style here, although “Death of Auto-Tune” means his vocals aren’t dripping with effects the way Kanye’s are). The final track, “Why I Love You,” is a welcome return to the “chipmunk soul” sound of early Yeezy. And the direct quotes are the most telling: Kanye straight-up worshipping “Big Brother,” quoting “What More Can I Say?” on “Otis” and “Lucifer” on “Murder to Excellence”.
What’s important to note is that the album is not just a statement on the past accomplishments of Jay and ‘Ye–it also makes a whole-hearted attempt at fixing some of their mistakes. In that sense the most interesting track is “New Day,”a RZA-produced gem where Kanye and Jay-Z contemplate fatherhood and what their sins will ultimately mean to their children. When Jay raps: “Sorry junior, I already ruined ya,” it has a bite that is somehow more potent than any gun-toting expression of dominance. Kanye’s verse is more predictable, but still important: it’s the full realization of the self-aware Kanye that debuted with “Runaway.”
Beyond the reflective element, Watch the Throne is just a legitimately excellent hip-hop album. It functions as a collective unit in a way that rap albums rarely do: this is hardly a collection of singles-to-be (indeed I don’t know if there’s one single on the album, and not many more hooks). The songs bleed into one another through really tremendous instrumental interludes that make the songs feel much longer than reality (rivaling the six-minute-and-up tracks off of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). While the album has more than its fair share of wordsmithery (our esteemed Editor-in-Chief has spent most of the morning and half of last night identifying the choicest lyrics), the production is what shines above all else.
While “Otis” was a worthy opening salvo, Kanye really shines on tracks that shy away from that minimalist approach. “Who Gon Stop Me” brings a little dub-step to the table, in a way that hardly overwhelms the vocals the way you would expect it to. “Made in America” has the sweetest sound a Kanye song has had since “Hey Mama”, with the added benefit of getting Odd Future‘s Frank Ocean to sing about “sweet baby Jesus”, a minor miracle (Ocean kills it in both appearances on the album, but I still never imagined a member of the Wolf Gang would wax religious on us). The guest-producers really bring it as well, RZA’s “New Day” we’ve recognized, but Q-Tip‘s production on “That’s My Bitch” is nearly as good, with a bass-line that echoes A Tribe Called Quest‘s “Excursions.” Maybe the best work on the whole album comes from Pharrell Williams and the aforementioned Tip working with Kanye on “Lift Off” (the same song where Beyonce reminds us that Rihanna, or anyone else, will never be the queen of hooks), where the horn section rivals even the triumphant “Roc Boys” or “Touch the Sky” for perfection in brass.
As for the lyrical chemistry between ‘Ye and Jay, I couldn’t have been more wrong when I predicted that the lack of a competitive edge between the two would make for a weaker album. The dynamic has shifted, particularly on Jay-Z’s part; Hov is more willing to share the spotlight, even give it up entirely, than we had ever imagined. The change in the balance of power, though, isn’t an admission of defeat, but a moment of clarity: when you hear Kanye’s verses and even his beats, they are so indebted to Jay that even a song where Jay leaves the spotlight he shines through Kanye’s work. It’s a new kind of confidence for Jay-Z, but maybe the most relatable confidence he’s ever demonstrated.
But yeah, it’s also an album and not a perfect one. I don’t know why they sample the Will Ferrell movie Blades of Glory on “N****s in Paris”, and I don’t know why Kanye is still making that “hanh!?” noise (or why Hov is copying it). I like “Why I Love You” as a song (and Mr. Hudson always entertains me) but I don’t feel like it fits at the end. Why “Lift Off” doesn’t open the album is beyond me (although “No Church in the Wild” might be the most sonically interesting song on the whole album, it doesn’t have the feel of an opener).
More importantly, I don’t really know where it stacks up within either artist’s catalogue. Watch the Throne is so indebted to the past that its hard to compare it with other albums, particularly so soon after its release. It doesn’t disappoint, in my mind, but I do have serious doubts that there’s anything truly revolutionary about the album. There a certifiably great songs in here, but I don’t know whether it qualifies as something truly special. Special the way The Blueprint was special, or even the way My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was, special in the way all the music this album tributes is special. It’s a high standard to be held too, but that’s the danger of being The Throne.
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