Review Summary: Headshot, nigga fuck yo vest.
Perhaps it won’t get a lot of press, and maybe the only place you’ll hear about it is in this review, but the fact that Jay-Z and Kanye West successfully eschewed a leak of their first official collaborative album is nothing to scoff at. It’s 2011, and with the internet within reach of every music-grubbing teenager in the known world, a lot of people hear an album weeks before it hits the shelves. Leaks aren’t exactly ruining the music business, but there’s no denying that a leak hampers first week (and subsequently long-term) sales numbers, resulting in smaller profits for musicians. Determined to ensure that Watch the Throne
wouldn’t leak, Kanye and Jay, known collectively as The Throne, denied small record stores the benefit of stocking the sure-to-go-platinum record, justifying their decision by accusing mom-and-pop record stores of being the source of many album leaks. Instead, The Throne decided to first release the album digitally, and then in major stores like Best Buy a few days after the initial iTunes release. Whether or not there is any credence to the allegations against small record stores being the provenance of leaks is uncertain, but the policy seemed to go over well for Yeezy and Hov, as their plans went off almost without a single hitch (a blogger leaked 30-second snippets of each song a few days before the album’s release, but the file was promptly removed from the internet and the individual was [presumably] appropriately reprimanded), and Watch the Throne
graced ears for the first time only on its release date. Expectations were astronomically high; two of music’s most famous men had spent nearly the last year together collaborating in extravagant locations all across the world and with well-respected musical icons. Kanye West was sitting atop the world, fresh off of the critical success of 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
, a train that still has yet to slow, and Jay-Z still has more clout than most musicians can ever hope to have, despite recent critical failures. Expectations were indeed astronomically high, and The Throne delivered, crafting a well-rounded album sure to occupy CD players, iPods, and radio stations for months to come.
Enlisting the production talents of a fifteen-man collective, including heavyweights Pharrell Williams, Q-Tip, and The RZA, Watch the Throne
’s palette is an impressive assortment of eclectic styles, which, like the veracious production displayed on West’s 2010 opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
, often transcends the distinction of mere hip-hop into august art. Perhaps the best example of this is opening track “No Church in the Wild,” an indescribably consummate instrumental that can be best described not in musical terms, but rather in experiences: maybe it’s hugging a wall, inching closer to the edge and peeking out, searching, perhaps across vast expanses, for the antagonist of your life’s movie as beads of sweat roll down your face; maybe it’s the paradoxically frantic-yet-composed chase across a rooftop, interspersed with sporadic gunshots; or maybe it’s not quite so dramatic, maybe it’s the soundtrack to your existential musings, your wavering convictions, hundreds of thoughts rolling in and out of your brain’s focus. Regardless of what is to an individual listener, the song’s greatest asset is that it is profound by nature; it can be anything to everyone or everything to anyone, and in a more poignant manner than most music, and that’s the quality of production that pervades Watch the Throne
– if it’s not trying to push the boundaries of hip-hop, it’s at the very least moving listeners. An excellent example of the endeavors of the duo is the unique beat on “Who Gon’ Stop Me,” which pulls a page out of DJ Premier’s book by flaunting three distinct beats in the same song. Unlike Premo, however, Kanye, Sham Joseph, and Mike Dean seamlessly entwine the disparate sounds to create a single lush amalgam of a beat, devoid of the brief interludes that separated the beats in Gang Starr classics “Speak Ya Clout” and “I’m the Man”. “Murder to Excellence” also boasts multiple beats in one track, the former being the better of the two and one of the best on the album; a simple yet haunting guitar riff with the “la-la-las” of an ethereal schoolchild chorale constitutes the beat while Jay and Kanye lament over fallen friends and bemoan violence in their cities with powerful bars, including the incisive Yeezy line “And I’m from the murder capital where they murder for capital, heard about at least three killings this afternoon.” Midway through the dichotomous track, the second, more optimistic instrumental enters the mix, serving as the backdrop to claims of “black excellence.”
Lyrically, the album is just passable; both rappers have done better at some point in their careers, but at the same time they’ve both been worse. Watch the Throne
is actually a pretty good balance between the good and bad qualities of each member of The Throne; both members employ clever wordplay here and there, the braggadocio is well done, and the flows are great. The complex nature of a lot of the beats on the album make them difficult to flow well over, but ‘Ye and Jay, having only to occasionally temper their deliveries are able to avoid awkward moments and create G.O.O.D. music for the entire duration of the album. On “New Day”, the horribly underwhelming RZA-produced track, the two rap about the ways in which they would raise their sons, how they would teach their kids to be better than them; Kanye addresses his ego and reflects on the problems it has caused for his image and how he would want to teach his son humility. It’s as serious a track as one will find in Kanye’s discography, but it’s not without its humorous moments, like the delightfully light respite of a line: “I mean I might even make him be republican, so everybody know he love white people”. The album’s finale “Why I Love You,” a twofold metaphor about both the hip-hop game and apostates of The Throne’s past sees Jay and Kanye trade bars, albeit in an unorthodox way. They’re not trading fours or eights, but rather only spitting words at a time while the other finishes the bar flawlessly, a feat that exhibits the fun and innovative aspect of the duo. Ultimately, Watch the Throne
comprises vocals that act as another instrument to the music, as while the lyrics aren’t always on point, the rappers’ flows allow their deliveries to complect the instrumental and, again, simply make art.
If January’s release of “H.A.M.” was to be any indicator of the quality of Watch the Throne
, it would have surely been a sore disappointment, as listeners were chagrined when the odd and audacious instrumental was met with asinine verses. Irresolute fans certainly had reasonable doubt as to whether or not the album would be worth a listen, and particularly if Jay-Z, who has, for a few years now, been in a slump lyrically, would be able to deliver on the mic, and if notorious perfectionist Kanye West, who for whatever reason allowed Jay to produce forgettable verses on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
– including the played-out, incredibly amateur “rape and pillage a village” line on “Monster” – would be able to keep Hov in check. Thankfully, neither rapper penned cringe-worthy verses, and while certainly not reprising his glory days, Jay-Z delivered a few standout lines throughout the record. On the whole, the album is marked by sublime production, and in most cases, songs on the album are worth listening to for this reason, but in a few places, the album becomes a bit redundant. About half of the tracks on the album really aren’t anything special, and though they are by no means bad songs, they subsume the role of the part of the album that will come to be referred to as “that group of songs in the middle”. That’s no reason to neglect the album though; lyrically, Jay-Z hasn’t been this good in years, and while that really isn’t saying much, neither he nor Mr. West outshines the other at any point on the album, and with the high caliber of production on Watch the Throne
, there really isn’t a good reason for anyone to not hear