Review Summary: An excellent, albeit over-hyped collaboration between two of hip-hop's most powerful figures.
In the year 2011, it is more or less impossible to be a listener of music and not know of Jay-Z
or Kanye West
. The pair of rappers are almost as well known for their music as they are for their influence. Jay-Z
has been on the scene ever since 1989, and later boosted the career of friend Kanye West
through jobs as producer. Classic albums such as "The Blueprint", "Reasonable Doubt", "The College Dropout" and "Late Registration" won wide acclaim and cemented Jay-Z and Kanye West as icons of the genre, respectively. Over the approximate ten years of features and production collaborations, a full-on album by the duo seemed inevitable.
What we finally got was "Watch The Throne". A dense, heavily-layered hip-hop album with less samples than one would expect, and typically excellent production from Mr. West himself, and others such as The Neptunes (famous for Snoop Dogg
's "Drop It Like It's Hot, among many other late-90's and 2000's work) and The RZA
from the Wu-Tang Clan
. The few guest spots on the album are occupied by Frank Ocean
from notorious Los Angeles, California collective OFWGKTA
, Jay's own wife Beyonce
, Mr. Hudson
, and Otis Redding
from beyond the grave. A change from the vast amount of guests on last year's Kanye West release "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy", Watch The Throne allows for the main focus to be on the record's prime subjects.
The album opens up with a driving bass line, leading into Frank Ocean brilliantly crooning a series of shockingly poignant lyrics. The line expands with a chorus of strings, before Jay-Z takes over with a particularly dark verse declaring "tears on the mausoleum floor, blood stains of the Colosseum doors". His verse continues to portray gloomy images, notwithstanding a metaphor of Kanye and himself to Socrates and Plato, and a mild comparison to the work of Jesus. Very modest, indeed. The Frank Ocean hook:
"Human being to the mob,
What's a mob to a king? What's a king to a god?
What's a god to a non-believer who don't believe in anything?
Make it out alive, alright, alright, no church in the wild"
shows the RnB singer at an exponential high. It will undoubtedly score Ocean a plethora of new fans, and potentially make him the new most popular Odd Future collective member, over that...uh, Creator guy. Kanye's verse proceeds with his typical brand of endlessly quotable one-liners, and yet fails to impress me to the point that Jay's had. The song ends with a repeat of the Frank Ocean hook, and an odd 20 second outro melody, one of several that appear at the ends of tracks on this album. More on that later.
The second track, "Lift Off", features Jay's wife and fellow musician, Beyonce, another uber famous hip-hop spectrum member. It is no surprise that her vocals are well-sounding, although her lyrics leave more than a little to be desired. One cool thing about this song is the implementation of these old-timey air force/flight radio recordings from whatever source that I am unable to identify. However, nothing really stands out within the Jay and Kanye verses on this track, other than a Dale Earnhardt crash reference. Overall, it's one of my least favorites on the album. "Niggas In Paris" has a repetitive beat with a lackluster chorus, and mildly interesting verses. Lines about money, and richness are aplenty, and yet are still spat with effortless virtuosity. Although it's annoying hook is prominent, the track makes up for it with an interlude made of a Blades Of Glory film sample, and an outstanding outro, by Mr. West.
The album's second single after the Itunes bonus track only "H.A.M", "Otis" is built strongly for replay-ability. The Otis Redding sample builds the track expertly, and provides an ideal frame, circa Kanye's "Gold Digger" on 2005 album "Late Registration". The lyrics on the track never get too deep, but remain clever and fun. The pair switch off throwing blistering lines at each other, until the sample finishes the track. "Gotta Have It" is a subsequently short song, which comes off of "Otis" strongly, keeping the energy alive. It is probably one of the closest things to a filler song on this record, but also a good breaker in between more serious tracks.
"New Day" is supplemented by a Nina Simone sample, and is arguably the most serious song on Watch The Throne. West and Jay-Z have one verse each, where they speak of how they would treat a son of their own, and the ways in which they would be better fathers than their own. It's a song of "omniscient advice" to either an already-born child, or a nonexistent one. "That's My Bitch" is lacking lyrically, but is decent musicianship wise. The beats are pleasant enough, but it's an ultimately forgettable song.
Sharing a name with a Guns 'N' Roses
track of immense popularity, Kanye and Jay's "Welcome To The Jungle" is primarily Jay's song. He uses it as a spot to expound on past experiences, his own personal state of mind, and reference musicians he has respect for. The lines:
"I look in the mirror
My only opponent"
describe how Jay feels the only true challenge he faces in the music world is topping himself. It ends with a repeat of that odd outro beat that so frequently appears. "Who Gon Stop Me" is the most directly dubstep prominent, with a multitude of remixes in the works. It's a solid reputation track, with conventional boasting from the duo, and Kanye's singer "HEH!" refrain. It works enough for the first few listens, but eventually grows tiring. "Murder To Excellence" is a standout track, describing murders by gang violence in the cities they grew up in. It's nothing we haven't heard before, but it's a welcome addition to the array of anti-gang violence tracks in the rap genre.
The last two tracks of the album see the return of Frank Ocean, in almost a response to the album's opening track, and one that he also appeared on. The religious doubt expressed in "No Church In The Wild" is contradicted here in sheer religious enthusiasm with "Made In America". As always, Frank sounds great, and the ever-vengeful Kanye STILL manages to stick in a gripe about South Park. Someone can't get over a joke, eh? It's a strong tribute song by both rappers, and really sets up the album excellently for closing track "Why I Love You". The beat here is strong and heavy, and manipulations of Mr. Hudson's line:
"I love you so,
But why I love you,
I'll never know"
work efficiently. The verses exchanged between the pair grow increasingly shorter, until the end of the song where they are merely left shouting two words at each other, completing the sentence. The instrumentation is thoroughly strong here and provides an excellent closer. It's all very intense, and rightfully so. This song concludes an album by hip-hop's (and music in general) most powerful figures, and does so successfully. Overall, I feel Jay-Z, surprisingly, outshone Kanye West, just by sheer delivery and badassery. Although not being THE greatest album of all time as all the internet was expecting it to be, Watch The Throne is a strong release, and I highly recommend it.
Best Songs: No Church In The Wild, Otis, New Day, Murder To Excellence, Why I Love You