“Watch the throne”? Inasmuch as the title of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s collaborative effort refers to the combined talents of two of hip-hop’s current titans—or even to hip-hop’s steadfast and often encumbered position in popular culture and taste making—then, yes indeed, watch the throne! But with great cultural events should also come intriguing analysis, and so it’s useful to watch the discourse as well.
The value of a release as large as Watch the Throne is that it goes beyond the gargantuan personalities involved or even the monster show dates designed to promote it. Part of the value is the discussion it generates regarding such issues as consumer and critical expectations, quality control, cohesion, ego tripping, and subject matter. True to its magnitude, Watch the Throne has prompted much discussion, including analysis of its packaging (It’s all gold!) and the secrecy surrounding its ultimate release (Somehow, it didn’t leak!). All of this has become part of its lore and allure, much like the way the chronology of Kanye West’s own My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy became absorbed into the album itself: The Taylor Swift incident, self-imposed exile and recording, new single debut, songs released through free “G.O.O.D. Friday” downloads, direct a bizarre short film.
Interestingly, no one’s pretending rappers have never collaborated before Jay-Z and Kanye decided to join forces. We are all aware of hip-hop’s track record with groups (NWA, A Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang Clan, and many others), super-groups (Boot Camp Clik, Random Axe, Slaughterhouse, Hail Mary Mallon, eMC), deejay/producer albums that are almost always built upon collaboration, and crews (Boogie Down Productions, Native Tongue, the Juice Crew). When it comes to duos, we could always go back to one of my favorites, Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith of EPMD, but honestly, hip-hoppers have been teaming up so often lately, either with a deejay or another rapper, that it can be tough to keep up. KRS-One has become particularly active in this regard.
While Jay-Z and Kanye certainly aren’t the first to collaborate, theirs is likely to seen as the largest of such joint ventures thus far. It’s larger even than Jay-Z’s own collaboration with R. Kelly. As such an event, there wasn’t a clear sign of what to expect, although I thought the project would be closer to the fun-loving word associating boom bap of Aesop Rock, Rob Sonic, and DJ Big Whiz (as Hail Mary Mallon) on 2011’s Are You Gonna Eat That?. Maybe a little less sonically dense, depending on Kanye’s shifting tastes, but probably about as cohesive. That we didn’t quite get that type of album from these two is, to borrow from Jay-Z’s Blueprint series, a gift and a curse.
Given Watch the Throne‘s significance as a release and cultural event, it is no surprise that expectations played a prominent role. Even Jay-Z, in interviews, intimated that the album was put through a deliberate process of drafts in order to scale the finished product down to size. The release would be enormous, but would it be worth listening to?
Once the album dropped, much of the discussion shifted to the artists themselves. There’s the differences in Kanye’s approach to making music compared to Jay-Z’s, leading to all kinds of speculation about how they well worked together, whether their contrasting styles and viewpoints could be properly merged, and, of course, which artist outperformed the other. About the latter, I’d say Kanye comes off as a bit more eager and hyped up, and so an argument can be made that he sounds fresher than the characteristically unflappable Jay-Z, but it’s basically a draw for me. Jay-Z’s wordplay is more subtle, but the flow is sometimes off, as if the beats were altered or changed altogether after he’d already laid his vocals. Kanye generally sounds like a little kid on this album, rapping with his big brother (pun intended) and so he manages to irritate me at times when I think he intends to sound cool.
Overall, though, they mesh well enough, at least as well as they have in the past, like on Talib Kweli’s remix to “Get By”, Jay-Z’s “Hate”, T.I.‘s “Swagga Like Us”, and tracks on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Kanye, the ambitious producer who so often acts without thinking, provides a nice complement to Jay-Z, the charismatic wordsmith who seems to think a whole lot before he acts. What they have in common, aside from supreme branding in the commercial marketplace, is self-absorption, or at least the perception that they are plenty into themselves. Their music basically confirms this, as they are usually their own favorite subjects, concerned with haters and turncoats, and fond of talking about themselves in the third person, as if they are momentarily awed by the forces of their own talents and have to be distanced from the magnitude of it all. In fact, I tend to think of Jay-Z and Kanye as being so into themselves, their individual challenges, and their origin stories that I’m actually stunned when they manage to acknowledge each other’s presence on Watch the Throne. “Damn Yeezy and Hov, where the hell you been?” Kanye (a.k.a. “Yeezy”) asks of himself and his partner Jay-Z (a.k.a. “Hov”) in the Otis Redding sampling “Otis”. In the same track, Jay-Z says, “Run up on Yeezy the wrong way, I might merk ya”.