There’s a golden beacon shining in the distant past. It is a balmy August afternoon, the sun melts everything it touches into a sullen haze. As you walk towards the shimmering thing, the thing becomes more definite in its shape: piercing edges, fleur-de-lis jab seemingly into themselves, Roman numerals, and an indecipherable codex fan out like a diamond laid flat. Suddenly the world around you comes into focus: you are in a suburban big-box electronics store, one which still sells CDs but very obviously won’t for much longer. You can feel a change hanging in the air: digital music sales will soon eclipse physical, streaming will eventually eclipse that, you are shifting out of your own adolescence.
Riccardo Tisci was the designer of the kaleidoscopic album art which forever adorns MP3s and Spotify metadata of these 16 tracks, and starting there seems as good a place as any to understand Watch the Throne in the ten years since its release. We begin with hyperbole, hollow opulence, and a luxury designer name drop. That describes nearly three-fourths of the album for goodness sake. Like Tisci’s jagged print, though, within the shimmering riddle of Watch the Throne one can find a real inscrutable depth, a near-breaking point of personality, skill, and style, from two of the best rappers’ ascent and supremacy.
Throne truly is a crossroads for two kings who walk into the blockbuster event of their collaborative album – originally meant to be a five-song EP – bloated with power and bluster, and who walk away from the album, the tour, and each other forever changed. To really grasp Watch the Throne‘s staying power is to first understand how ephemeral the album really is. After all, Watch the Throne isn’t that good, but Jay-Z and Kanye West in 2011 and 2012 were that good, and as a waypoint on a cultural map, Watch the Throne is a necessary beacon in the dark. A beacon that shines pure crystal and gold.
What’s a king to a god?
Jay-Z enters Throne bored. 2009’s The Blueprint 3, while home to a few essential tracks (“Run This Town”, “On to the Next One”, “Thank You”), almost entirely trades the crucial street lyrics meets savvy business boasting for name dropping Obama. That is followed by a mostly boring singles collection project later abandoned. In 2010, suggesting Jay-Z was washed wouldn’t have been difficult to argue.
Kanye enters Throne on fire. 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an album that defies expectation and renders hyperbole impossible. Good news for fans who clamored for more of whatever spark West brought with him to the Honolulu recording studio where much of this magic happened rejoice: it brought Jay-Z into the fold for a little extra work.
The easy camaraderie between Jay-Z and Kanye West is truly the main event of Watch the Throne, their seamless bar-for-bar raps make the near hour of music (on the deluxe edition anyway) go by like a breeze. For better or worse, it sounds like they aren’t even trying. This is amplified during the Watch the Throne world tour, which was the highest-grossing hip-hop tour until Drake’s run in 2016.
Not only do these two dudes sound like they aren’t even breaking a sweat, but they also bring out the best in each other track for track. In “Who Gon Stop Me”, Kanye teases Jay-Z’s old street lethality. “Whole lotta money in a black bag,” Jay raps, still on his money shit, “Black strap, you know what that’s for?” is as threatening as any line in “Takeover”. Similarly, Jay-Z’s meditations on fatherhood (several months before the birth of his first child) bring out a thoughtfulness in Kanye nowhere to be heard on Dark Fantasy in the ode to fatherhood “New Day”. Ye sings, “I’ll never let my son have an ego / he’ll be nice to everyone wherever we go.” When Kanye goes back to these themes in 2018 on Ye he’s much more clumsy without Jay-Z anchoring the cringe-inducing “Violent Crimes”.
At the beginning of Watch the Throne it is clear, as I perceived at a Best Buy in Northeastern Ohio, change was coming.
What’s a god to a non-believer?
At the end of Watch the Throne it is clear change has come. Jay-Z and Kanye West seem to be as far apart as ever (although, the recent buzz around West’s supposedly soon-to-be-released Donda features a Watch the Throne team up and lyric suggesting the reunion is more than just one verse long). There is a great sadness to these songs when you consider the biographical disparity of these two.
Jay-Z leaves the Throne to release another piece of (unfairly) maligned luxury rap in 2013’s messy (but solid!) Magna Carta Holy Grail. He tours with Justin Timberlake (dumb, but good) and his wife (genius, and incredible!), cheats on her and disappears behind tabloid drama until Beyonce airs it all out in 2016’s exceptionally good Lemonade. Then Jay-Z airs himself out in the highly confessional 4:44 (2017), Jay’s most tightly focused piece of work and best in his late career. Reflective, deeply personal, vital, Jay comes out of the apology world tour with another big blockbuster collaboration album, this time with Beyonce, releasing ALL IS LOVE as the Carters to kick off their second co-headliner world tour. These days Jay is a businessman, not a businessman, but he’s been doing pretty good work handling his business (damn).
Kanye, on the other hand, has been busy since peaking with Watch the Throne. I hesitate to devote too many words to his sloppy release cycles (including yet another which we are in the middle of right now), numerous broken promises to fans, the championing of dirtbag-in-chief Donald Trump, the MAGA-hat era, the high-profile marriage and divorce with Kim Kardashian, his terrible struggle with mental health issues, and the poopity-scoop song. Look, Kanye from 2004 to 2012 was just about untouchable, and it’s sad to see the guy spiral so profoundly. When I listen to “Illest Motherfucker Alive”, I wish for Kanye to have the feeling of lightness so obviously breathing life into those silly, hilarious, and boastful lyrics. As Ye raps, “Let me show you what I see when my eyes closed.” If we’re talking 2011/2012, sign me up. Not so much, these days.
What’s a mob to a king?
But after Jay-Z and Kanye West come together, and long before they break apart, there is this blessed and chaotic coming together. Watch the Throne somehow ties together the sounds of hip-hop’s future. Maximalist productions like “H.A.M” or “That’s My Bitch” forecast every music festival rapper’s sound for years to come. Throne also echoes the past, lyrically and at a production level, songs like “The Joy” call backstories of Jay and Ye’s musical upbringings alongside soul samples (Curtis Mayfield, who is given a featured credit in this case) or “Otis”, or Frank Ocean’s old soul rhythm and blues homage in “Made in America”.
The two real main events on Throne‘s marquee are “Otis” and “Ni**as in Paris” which are what bring the mob to these kings.
With “Otis,” Jay-Z and Kanye won back some faith in Watch the Throne after “H.A.M.’s” abrasive tones cast doubt over the project with its January 2011 release. “Otis”, on the other hand, gave a clear picture of what these two could do together. Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” was flipped into an easy beat for Jay and Ye to deliver complimentary verses that highlight their distinct personas and showcase their complementary skillset. Jay: “Photoshoot fresh, lookin’ like wealth I’m “bout to call the paparazzi on myself.” Kanye: “Sophisticated ignorance, write my curses in cursive.”
That’s heightened in the Spike Jonze shot music video which shows the two men having a fucking blast destroying a Maybach car. It is a perfect distillation of Watch the Throne‘s ethos: dudes rock but dudes who are incomprehensibly wealthy having a blast. “Otis”, debuting barely a month before the album’s release, brought anticipation to a fever pitch, and rightfully so.
Hyperbole about Watch the Throne aside, I maintain the album itself isn’t that good. The real joie de vivre of this album isn’t listening to it by yourself, it was seeing the world tour, which coincidently was the first time Kanye took Dark Fantasy songs on the road. The best way to understand the spectacle of the two god-tier King emcees Jay-Z and Kanye West each trading their best songs and best verses together in sold-out arenas across the world for a year is in the tired encore each tour date ended with: marathon performances of Throne‘s third single, the glitchy, Will Ferrell-sampling, near-impossible to quote or mention “Ni**as in Paris”.
During the tour, they played “Paris” 237 times. Ten of those were during the July 1st tour stop in Paris, France. When I say Watch the Throne in Detroit the previous November, the guys only played “Paris” a measly seven times.
In the decade since this album dropped, a lot has been said about how superficial Watch the Throne‘s riches are, but the thing is when two artists at their peak are having this much fun, superficiality doesn’t really matter. Let clips from the tour attest to that. The mob came out for these kings, and each time I listen to them together, after that twinge of sorrow for their falling out, I’m reminded of the visible-from-the-cheap-seats grin Kanye and Jay-Z had for each other.
Human beings in a mob
Watch the Throne in a lot of ways is immune to critique and is impervious to reassessment. It is what it is. What could measly I write about the album that could possibly change the narrative paths Jay-Z and Kanye West took away from 2011? What could anyone say that might alter the moment in August when people, like me, were drawn into the golden orbit of Watch the Throne?
It is the small things – the human moments of Throne – that I think are worth reassessment. In a lot of ways, collaborative though it may be, Throne is Kanye’s album. Kanye’s last great album, in fact. In the stunning opening track, “No Church in the Wild”, Frank Ocean and Jay-Z warm up the crowd over a pulsating beat that sounds like you can only hear it from outside whatever proceedings are happening. It takes over two and a half minutes before Kanye even bothers to show up, and this isn’t the tardy Kanye of blown release dates, this is the Kanye of untouchable might, who delivers his all-time best verse and then vanishes into the rest of the album. Lest we forget Jay-Z’s “Jesus was a carpenter, Yeezy, laid beats” throwing his former protégé turned coconspirator and great compliment.
What about “Gotta Have It” with its mind-blowing intra-verse line trading bringing out some breathless Jay-Z wordplay, “’cause I’m richer, and prior to this shit was movin’ freebase” bouncing right off of Kanye’s “Had a conference with the DJs, Puerto Rico three-days / Sorry I’m in pajamas, but I just got off the PJ.” Or “Welcome to the Jungle” with its introspective synth tension, Jay: “Where the fuck is the sun? It’s been a while / Momma, look at ya son, what happened to my smile?” They aren’t just rapping about blowing up Maybach cars; there are some real soulful moments underneath the glam. “Champagne for the pain, weed for the low / Goddamn I’m so high, where the fuck did I go?” Kanye: “I asked her where she wanted to be when she twenty-five / she turned around and looked at me and said, ‘Alive.'”
Of course, you lose these moments when the raison d’etre of the album is maximalism, and that’s too bad. Underneath the Tisci, underneath the boasts, behind the pyrotechnics are some real lyrics. I’m not sure if Watch the Throne is even in need of a reassessment. Like the loudest parts of the album, it just screams that Jay-Z and Kanye West are here. Or, ten years removed, that Jay-Z and Kanye West were there.
“Will he make it out alive?” Ocean asks as “No Church in the Wild” ends and the album begins. Maybe the living is finite, like friendship, Maybe the living is opulent, like luxury. Maybe the living braggadocious, but only to cover up some real hard felt shit. The whole point of Watch the Throne is that we aren’t and never will be on the level of Kanye and Jay. But they were on that level.