It's not the beacon of creativity that some may expect on the heels of Kanye's epic 2010, but Watch the Throne is definitely one of 2011's most entertaining, ear-perking offerings.
In 2001, Jay-Z teamed up with Kanye West and Just Blaze to create one of the past decade's most influential, evocative hip-hop soundscapes. The Blueprint proved to be as aptly titled as any hip-hop LP ever has been, and over the following three years, all three artists experienced great success on the strength of that album's ubiquity. But by 2004, Jay had tired of life as the king of the castle and Kanye was increasingly bored playing second, even third, fiddle to his labelmates. Amidst apexing drama between Roc-A-Fella's State Property and Dipset factions, Jay declined to reign supreme over the rap world any longer, loudly passing his scepter to Kanye, widely considered the least likely of choices for the role.
Yet, as is a king's wont, Jay made a decision he felt was for the best of the Roc, and, if the previous seven years have taught us anything, it was his best business move since eschewing major label money in favor of starting his own label in 1996. Kanye quickly developed a signature sound, and then another, and then another, and by the time they reconvened to work on Jay-Z's Blueprint 3 in 2009, the tables had very obviously turned. Kanye was now in Jay-Z's ear more as a peer than a hitmaker, and the respect ran deeper than musical aptitude. The two began to view each other as two sides of the same coin; Jay with his collected, DeNiro-like demeanor and Ye, the bombastic Pacino out for the blood of all who dared doubt him.
Watch the Throne is undoubtedly the album fans of both artists have been waiting on the edge of their seats for since Blueprint dropped ten years ago, the musical equivalent of a Righteous Kill had it gone tremendously right, taken no glaring missteps, and delivered on all the accrued talent and self-awareness of a decade spent at the top of your game is expected to evidence. Which is, honestly, a bit of a surprise. After "H•A•M" released to about as unexpectedly lukewarm a reception as a Jay-Z & Kanye record could receive, Watch the Throne became enshrouded in mystery and doubt.
The intended EP expanded into an album, and the recording sessions continued to extend themselves past one due date and then another. After a while, the duo opted instead for utter mystery, keeping the album as close to their chests as possible until a listening party earlier this month in New York. Then suddenly at midnight August the 8th, Watch the Throne was upon us. No leaks, no lead singles other than the still blossoming "Otis". For the first time in a long while, not only did hip-hop fans have an event album, but an event album that we were all going to experience at the same time.
Considering the anticipation, one would certainly be forgiven for their immediate reaction being tinted with varying shades of disappointment. For starters, fans of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy will probably be a little let down at Watch the Throne's lack of thematic consistency. There are moments of half-hearted collusion between tracks, such as Jay-Z's gun reference that concludes "Who's Gon Stop Me?" and bleeds into the immediate conceit of "Murder to Excellence". But musically the two songs couldn't be further apart, as Sak Pase's bombastic sample choice of Flux Pavilion's "I Can't Stop" butts heads with Swizz Beatz and Symbolyc One's "Power"-referencing tribal chants sourced from the Indigo Twins' "La La La".
Elsewhere there's the brilliantly mind-fucking auto-tuned Nina Simone texturizing RZA's "New Day", the west coast blog rap bop of Hit-Boy's "Niggas in Paris", "Made in America"'s understated "We Are the World"-style soft pop and "Welcome to the Jungle"'s allusions to raw New Yorkian street rap like Nas' "Made You Look". The supervision of Kanye West and Mike Dean over most of these tracks lends them all a sound that is ultimately distinctly Kanye, and a Jon Brion-like interlude creeps up a few times to remind us we're listening to the same album, but the first few listens will feel a little schizophrenic as one tries to place exactly which hats they prefer the duo wear.
It also doesn't help that "Niggas in Paris" is the third track on the album but feels like it's proper starting point. "Lift Off" is built around a Beyoncé hook that feels like the song's main selling point and doesn't help itself with Jay-Z's most disturbingly maudlin delivery since American Gangster's "Pray". "No Church in the Wild" meanwhile wastes a guitar-based beat that one-ups Twisted Fantasy's "Gorgeous" on a meandering Frank Ocean chorus and verses that, again, feel a little out of focus compared to the hook and beat's opulence.
But after "Niggas in Paris", the next six tracks are a whirlwind of excitement, particularly "Gotta Have It", which finds Kanye and Jay spitting such decadent, pro-Black-laden material as "Maybachs on bachs on bachs on bachs on bachs / Who in that? / Oh, shit, it's just blacks on blacks on blacks," and "New Day", the song that's sure to make its rounds through the majority of reviews thanks to its personal nature, especially in comparison to the rest of the album. There's also Jay's pimp-slapping of Beanie Sigel's well-publicized grievances on "Why I Love You", or Kanye's charmingly c-list puns involving Mary-Kate & Ashley and South Park to keep listeners' ears to the speaker.
But the subject matter is something that will divide listeners as much as the zig-zagging production, which is personally a little disappointing. I admit that I struggled with some of the album's content at first, what with Jay-Z "planking on a million" and the numerous accounts of hotel parties and shopping sprees in lavish locations I'll only ever dream of witnessing myself. Hua Hsu of Grantland.com labeled Watch the Throne "income-gap rap", and I've come to embrace the phrase as appropriately evocative of half the content here. But to interpret this album as strictly that does a disservice to the previously mentioned "New Day", or Kanye's brilliantly simple references to gangland violence on the "Murder" portion of "Murder to Excellence".
It ignores the moments where Jay takes a breather to reflect on his past life, describes his multi-millionaire lifestyle in project language or admits that in many ways, he struggles just as much with his life in the clouds as he did with his life in the streets. No, Kanye and Jay aren't very empathetic characters on Watch the Throne, but I think to criticize them for that is ultimately missing the entire conceit of the album's framework, being that of two hip-hop kings patting each other on the back for a job well done and putting their peers on notice that, yes, it really is this easy for them to make one of the best -- or at least most enjoyable -- albums of the year if they feel so inclined. Watch the Throne succeeds in both and in giving us both sides of both artists -- the braggadocio and the social consciousness -- in nearly equal measure. Which means it should be considered a success without question by all who come across it. I'd hope so, anyway.