There are so many blogworthy storylines behind Watch the Throne, it’s hard to keep track: Its organic development from an EP to a full length; the lack of leaks and secrecy kept from inception to its ever-changing release date; the iTunes and Best Buy exclusives that prompted an angry letter by independent record stores; the big-brother and protégé narratives. All these components have made Watch the Throne one of the most anticipated releases in recent memory. But at the end of the day, none of this buzz really matters. One plain and simple fact should remain the most important: Watch the Throne features two rap giants collaborating for 12 tracks. And any fan of music should be thrilled by the potential outcome.
Jay-Z and Kanye West
Watch the Throne
Opener “No Church in the Wild” lays down a tribal, pulsating beat – a typical trait of recent Kanye productions. The ensuing lyrical assault, however, is wider in scope than anyone ever could have expected. Frank Ocean takes the hook, outlining the hierarchy from human to Higher Power, but begs the question of whether or not that chain of command matters in a chaotic world. Jay-Z responds in the first verse by blending religious and philosophical references to conclude that the teachings of the prophets known as Yeezy and Hova stand as equal to – or perhaps superior to – any belief or opinion. This hip-hop boast isn’t anything new – especially for the opening track to a Jay-Z album – but with a reference to Plato’s Euthyphro, this is as academic as a rap can get. For an album that couldn’t have any higher expectations, the first track packs a mind-boggling, disorienting punch. This isn’t feel-good, shut-off-your-mind-and-enjoy kind of music. This is heavy stuff.
But after the intellectually loaded first track terminates, a weight is lifted and the fluffy “Lift Off” does quite literally what its title suggests. Beyoncé’s perfectly pitched voice soars for a radio-ready chorus as light and airy as “Church” was heavy. Completely vapid of lyrical complexity compared to its predecessor, the track squeezes in all the tropes of a mediocre club track – brief yet frenetic drum machine, randomly injected background shouts and, of course, heavy bass throughout.
“Lift Off,” however, is the rare exception in an exceptionally brainy album. “New Day” contains Kanye’s most direct address of his past transgressions to date. While “Runaway” was just a superficial skirting of the I’mma-let-you-finish debacle, Kanye finally faces his demons head-on in song form. The “George Bush hates black people” statement after Hurricane Katrina, his rocky relationship with ex-girlfriend Alexis Phifer, his mother’s death at the hands of an ill-advised plastic surgery operation and his infamously stubborn personality – it’s all here.
Kanye’s reflection on these events, however, has a larger function. Kanye and Jay-Z have their potential offspring on the mind. Their feelings are similarly sympathetic for sons who will never carry out a normal life because of the fame of their fathers. The track is slightly tainted by an ill-advised, auto-tuned sample of the Nina Simone classic “Feeling Good.” But the lyrical exchange between the two wannabe future fathers sounds like a deep and heartfelt conversation among a pair of personalities that truly understand each other.
In fact, the chance that “New Day” actually stemmed from an in-person dialogue is increased by the nature of Watch the Throne’s recording. According to Jay-Z, in an interview with The Rolling Stone, both artists were present in the same location during the entire recording process – an impressive feat considering their globe-trotting tendencies and packed work schedules. The resultant chemistry can be felt on tracks like “Why I Love You” and “Gotta Have It,” which feature trade-off vocals bouncing off one another as if they’re finishing one another’s thoughts.
“Otis” is perhaps the best display of this ping-pong-ing and is a clear album standout. Named for the track’s sample (Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness”), “Otis” is a throwback not only because it features a song from the ’60s, but it also recalls Jay-Z and Kanye’s earliest collaborations, which used old soul and Motown samples. This time around, Kanye decides to maintain an authentic feel. Redding’s completely unadulterated vocal prowess shines and is matched by a similarly scrappy approach to the song’s verses.
Throughout Watch the Throne, Kanye and Jay-Z seem to constantly be on the same page. Every line is mutually understood and every verse is complemented by the other. The purpose of the album’s title is assumed to be another one of those hip-hop boasts – Jay-Z and Kanye West are the kings of the rap game. The obvious question of “How many seats does this throne have?” posed before listening to the album is clearly resolved by its end. The pair claim the top two spots of rap royalty. And unlike many similarly ego-driven claims by their peers, Jay-Z and Kanye are probably right. Watch the Throne is just one of many examples of how they defend their unmatched sovereignty.