Jay-Z and Kanye West
Watch the Throne
Label: Roc-A-Fella / Roc Nation / Def Jam
The superstar monumental collaborative rap album isn’t a particularly new concept in hip-hop. From 2Pac and Scarface’s mid-’90s album through Ghostface Killah and MF Doom coming together to make an underground rap fan’s wet dream, the genre has had its attempts at chocolate-in-peanut butter playdates. What separates Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne from the rest of the pack is that their album was actually released. Arriving on iTunes bright Monday morning without so much as a leak or a delay, it took the internet by storm. From trending topics on Twitter to tidal waves on Tumblr, it was nothing short of monumental. Not too many rap albums command such attention these days, so even with the joint-involvement of the two biggest names it is still somewhat surprising to it receive such a response. All hype and unnecessary iTunes bonus tracks aside, Watch the Throne meets just enough expectations to warrant the bombast.
While Jay-Z and Kanye teaming together is reason enough for any headline, the album’s real star is the production. A throne is only as prestigious as its kingdom, and the foundation Jay and Ye sit atop is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Presumably having the most resources made for a rap album since Three-6 Mafia’s 2008 post-Oscar outing Last 2 Walk, Watch the Throne shows what happens when you not only gather some of the genre’s most talented individuals, but give them access to a budget that can produce something really special. While a few moments do suffer from trying to put expensive effect-over-effect like an overzealous child mixing his first drink at a soda fountain, the bulk of the album has a level of guidance that is neither critic-bait nor fan-service. The best moments can largely be attributed to famed Rap-a-Lot in-house producer Mike Dean whose engineering gives Watch the Throne a certain warmth that’s been missing from both rappers’ overly-digitized output for sometime.
Speaking of welcome returns, Jay hasn’t rapped like this since coming back from his “retirement” five years ago. Whether it was not having the pressure of move X amount of units on his name alone and/or following his now-predictable Blueprint-formula of having to be everything to everyone, Jigga’s technical proficiency put so many of his long-dormant styles and flows on display that I half expected an early 90s “-iggity” tongue twist. His performance here acts as a solid reminder that, when he wants to be, he’s one of the best rappers on the planet. Such a title has been often shared between him and West in recent years, but following Watch the Throne the difference in skill becomes apparent.
Yes, Kanye is in full Phife mode. While I’ll gladly agree 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy had West trying to rap his absolute hardest since 2004’s College Dropout with successful results, his performance on Watch the Throne is a regression to the lackluster impressions-of-favorite-rappers style he displayed on Graduation. Perhaps it’s the duo’s close-proximity in working together, but so much of West’s work on the album sounds like either a mediocre Jay-Z knockoff or a comedian doing a dead-on Kanye West impression. Making this all the more frustrating are the moments where Kanye delivers. After the tremendous success of his last record, you would expect more from him on the level of his second verse on “Otis,” a song whose first single status seems almost like a bait-and-switch on Kanye’s part. Even though one of Watch the Throne‘s greatest strengths is Kanye and Jay actually collaborating together instead of email protools session across the country, which is the only way we were able to get great call-and-response duets like “Gotta Have It,” he’s stuck playing a second fiddle that no amount of Auto-Tune or vocoder smoke-and-mirrors can elevate.
As you may have gathered, the biggest question here is would Watch the Throne be better as a Jay-Z solo album? It’s something of a paradox as, had he not had the presence of a lesser rapper who was is just as much of a media darling and jockeying for the same position as one of rap’s first catalog artists, would Jay be inspired to rap at the same level? Overall, the best moments like the two Frank Ocean collaborations “No Church in the Wild” and “Made in America” show what Watch the Throne could and should have been, a game-changing masterpiece that’s just as satisfying to traditionalists as it is experimental resulting in an amplified excellence. But in-between the quality is gets muddied by second-rate showtunes like “Lift Off.” Forget the backlash the album’s receiving for the subject matter of two millionaires lamenting their fame at a time of their country’s greatest economic turmoil, the real outrage is the unchecked hubris of giving the public a rehash of previous ideas that by their second go-round have become stale. Still, the outstanding moments absolutely live up to the hype and serve as required listening for anyone with even a passing interest in the genre in 2011. We may not have gotten everything we wanted for Christmas, but we still received enough to make us believe in the magic of Santa for at least one more year.