Music

Watch the Discourse: Luxury Rap, Success and Self-Absorption

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.


Jay-Z, Kanye West

Watch the Throne

Label: Def Jam
US Release Date: 2011-08-08
UK Release Date: 2011-08-08
Amazon
iTunes

"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".

Next Page

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image