JAY-Z AND KANYE WEST “Watch the Throne” Roc-a-Fella Records (3 1/2 stars)
The kingdom is in peril. Confidence has been shaken: “Tears on the mausoleum floor/Blood stains the coliseum doors,” raps Jay-Z on the opening couplets of “Watch the Throne,” his new collaboration with Kanye West. “Lies on the lips of a priest/Thanksgiving disguised as a feast.”
That’s a lot of drama for so early, like starting a movie in the middle of a chase scene, especially when contrasted with vocalist Frank Ocean, whose gentle, emotional tenor wonders on the nature of faith and unsound hierarchies. “No church in the wild,” he sings, and with it the listener enters a bejeweled realm, one filled with musings on the spoils of riches and the chaos that accompanies it. This tension between worshiping the spirit and celebrating the bounty drives “Watch the Throne.”
The long-gestating project, released exclusively on iTunes Monday morning at 12:01 a.m., combines the strengths of two of the most acclaimed rappers of the last two decades, Jay-Z and West, who have worked together often but never on a collaborative full-length album, and couples them with some of today’s most respected producers, including the RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, DJ Premier, the Neptunes, the Jugganauts, Swizz Beats and Q-Tip.
The result is a cocksure, fiery, smart, if problematic, collaboration that showcases the pair’s distinct lyrical skills, their way around a metaphor and an ability to execute both a grand narrative and the details that turn it into truth. Musically, the production is captivating — especially West and RZA’s odd, syrupy beat on “New Day” — even if a relative lack of structural variety within the songs makes the record feel a little longer than it actually is.
Thematically, the throne of the title contains multitudes, based on the context of the lyrics surrounding it. The record questions faith while clinging to heritage and family, places this moment in a historical context, wonders on the mystery, power and confusion of the gilded life — while rolling around in amulets.
The album’s highlight, and an instant classic, is “Made in America,” a solid, slow-paced Frank Ocean-teamed jam about the American dream that reveals the main difference between West and Jay-Z: humility. Above a weirdly magnetic synthetic beat and dots of pretty piano clusters crafted by producer Sak Pace of the Jugganauts, Ocean begins by gently listing a string of saints — “sweet king Martin, sweet queen Coretta, sweet king Malcolm ... sweet baby Jesus” among them, and West offers a verse that starts off humble, but by the end he’s bragging about his power and slamming his critics.
In contrast, Jay offers a tender, descriptive recollection of his family life: “I pledge allegiance to my Grandma/For that banana pudding, our piece of Americana.” From there he commits to building a family, not to shoving fistfuls of money in doubters’ faces. Jay’s perspective tethers West throughout the album, even if both constantly describe their good fortune in ways that would furrow Mother Teresa’s brow.
Over the course of the 65-minute album, West and Hova name-check with cultural equanimity, shouting out both Too Short and Larry Gagosian, bragging on their Rothkos and Basquiats, offering a nod “to the leader of the Jackson 5,” to Dale Earnhardt, Plato and Malcolm X. Interwoven are brand-name endorsements of Hermes, Audemars Piguet, Margiela and Gucci.
It’s an impressive list of acquisitions, but would it have hurt them to toss off the names of a few worthy charities with as much enthusiasm, perhaps highlighting the power they have to spread their fortune? It must be a drag having to carry such a heavy wallet.
“Your life’s cursed, well mine’s an obscenity,” says West on “The Joy,” the last of the bonus tracks on the deluxe version. After walking through the showers of gold-leaf verbal confetti that’s rained down on the listeners over the last hour, it’s hard to find much sympathy for his plight, even if we respect the talent and hard work that got him to where he is.
But ego can be blinding.
“Who gon’ stop me?” they both rhyme on a song of the same name, and you can hear the famous last words of countless kings and despots as they accrue power. America was made after revolutionaries said “no” to the throne, and history tells us that if an assassin doesn’t get you, something else will. Henry VIII, recall, died of gluttony and gout. But on “Watch the Throne,” the two kings prove much more nimble and disciplined, displaying a confidence that suggests they’re not going anywhere.