The partnership between Jay-Z, one of hip hop’s most popular artists, and Kanye West, one of music’s most polarizing figures, was greatly anticipated. Sure, the two traded barbs and guest spots on albums for ages up to this point. But Watch the Throne offers a new opportunity to couple them in an environment a long way off from the Reasonable Doubt and College Dropout days.
Kanye West’s production game is colossal, with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy a significant recording. His ability to combine an enormous sum of incongruent elements and artists made that album pulse, while his poise as a rapper made it fly. Jay-Z, meanwhile, has had more than a few blockbuster moments of his own. The Black Album is a near classic, for instance, and his vocal capability is actually getting better with age.
As a matter of timing, Watch the Throne couldn’t be better.
Sonically, this is a brave, diverse, stimulating recording. There are extensive servings of musical experimentation, quirky rhythms and rhymes galore, interludes, a diabolically clipped Otis Redding taster, and three minutes of silence that set up an encore of sorts.
Lyrically, Watch the Throne is a mixed bag. Jay and Kanye trade verses about almost every theme under the sun, from raising kids to having plenty to crow about. Some may pan the braggadocio in these tough economic times, but these two cats try to measure bars filled with bountiful brand names against some hard-hitting social questions. It’s not always the best balance.
A rolling beat and Frank Ocean’s evocative vocals start the record on a shadowy tone. “No Church in the Wild” is a toned-down cut, making use out of a curious web of jungle animal sounds and police sirens to give additional perspective to the James Brown sample.
Beyoncé drops by on “Lift Off,” delivering a sweltering hook that gets bolstered by West and Jay-Z’s verses. Kanye’s arrogance (“showin’ my tattoos, I’m such a show off”) works in his favour, while Jay talks about how “earth is boring.” It’s one of the best tracks on the album.
RZA steps in on “New Day,” an contemplative cut that finds the pair looking ahead. West raps about a son, noting that he “might even make ‘em Republican so everybody know he love white people.”
There are misfires, like the hackneyed “Made in America” and the silly “H. A. M.,” a cut that never gets off the ground with its attempt to spawn a hot porcine catchphrase (shouldn’t it be “H. A. A. M.?”). Kanye’s now-unbearable “huh” is overused, too.
“That’s My Bitch” is troubling. While it rocks a snug refrain, the track packs some rough moments as Jay, after some admirable lines about putting women of colour front and centre, tells us to stop staring at Beyoncé’s tits and suggests that we “get our own dog.” The obstinate, offensive phrasing doesn’t live up to the unrestrained acclaim he heaps on his bride in the couplets prior, renovating what could have been a pretty dope track into one of the album’s most problematic moments.
While Watch the Throne isn’t the stroke of genius it could be, it is an expansive and stimulating album. It’s well-proportioned and showcases the skills of both Jay-Z and Kanye West to some extent, though it is far from their best work. The collaboration lacks substance in the final analysis and all the bluster, good as it is in some measures, isn’t enough anymore.