Review Summary: Amongst insanely huge productions, it has a polarizing duality.
One of the most interesting dynamics of rap and hip-hop has always been the motifs it chooses to shout from the soapbox- as an ostensible representation of an entire culture (and often an entire race), rap has a certain power over fans who consume it and critics who attack it. Unlike pop and R&B music, which thrive on either senseless ditzy lyrical translation of feel-good bliss (with race loosely attached) or the trivial pursuit of love and struggles of heartbreak, the most definitive rap features neither. Or, in the strangest of abnormalities, both.
No, hip-hop and rap have a rather crucial fixation with glorifying two peculiar things (for the purposes of this review, I’m gonna temporarily exclude the universal acceptance of using women as physical objects, better yet, “b*tches”), and more times than not, the two share an interesting polarity: on one end, there’s the relentless exploitation of the superficial, and the other, the focused worship of the “struggle” and the realities of common life, often tinged with the pains of poverty. People wonder why hip-hop often goes so wrong, and my personal theory is that it happens when the wrong artists speak on the wrong side of the spectrum. Gap-toothed southerners with half a hit rap about ludicrous houses and shoot flashy videos in cars they still can’t afford. Suburban denizens pass for tough-as-nails gun-toting gangsters. But even though selling out and having a depthless hit record is surely worth the monetary payoff, it rarely does anything to propel the art of music. Because it’s all fake, and the ultimate objective of music and hip-hop is to speak the truth.
Now here’s a truth: Jay-Z and Kanye West are rich as f*ck.
It’s certainly not the truth that the foundation of hip-hop and rap was created on, back when two turntables, a microphone, and a pair of Adidas was as flashy as you needed to be. But for two city slicks who grew up in poverty, got rich, and then just kept getting richer to a point where dining in Paris is likely just a Wednesday, it is a truth. So when Jay coolly claims that he’s “planking on a million”, it might be a joke, but there’s a pretty good chance that depending on his boredom, Sean Carter could lay on top of one hundred thousand ten dollar bills and TwitPic it just for fun. When Yeezy boldly states that he’s never going to Hell because he made “Jesus Walks”, it’s a brilliantly witty line. But he’s probably right.
These are just two clauses of hundreds of one-liners that piece together Watch The Throne, a colossal conversation between two kings who confidently talk of gods and devils, heroes and villains, fathers and sons, fame and isolation, confidences and insecurities, speaking with the air of men who have seen the entire world and no longer fear it. Actually: imagine Kanye and Jay on golden chairs that rise high above an endlessly massive desert of sand, while below, a violent slow-motion affair of deadly tigers, thundering drums, warring orchestrations, blinding synths, and rebellious armies of the living dead led by Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield rages on. At its mightiest, that’s what Watch The Throne sounds like, right there.
The opener, curiously titled “No Church In The Wild”, is perhaps the best example of how great Throne can be, and it’s only the first track: the dizzying creep of drums, guitar, and church organs seethe with a haunting bloodlust as the duo juxtapose thoughtful wordplay (Jay speaks of “lies on the lips of a priest”) with senseless acts of imagery (‘Ye fancies black women drenched in cocaine “like a zebra”). Frank Ocean unites it all with a provoking chorus: “What’s a God to a non-believer?” Jay opens the “blood-stained coliseum doors” and the meticulously brash rush of Throne begins.
Beyoncé doesn’t bring anything drastically different to the lavish of “Lift Off” (she croons the truth: “How many people you know can take this far?”), but ‘Ye’s brilliantly grand beat is the most prominent achievement here, and if Beyoncé is your girlfriend, you put her on a track because why the f*ck not. Immediately following take off is a pair of swag-boosted tracks, two more of the better tracks on Throne: the thick thumps on “Niggas In Paris” allow for a Will Ferrell sample, a Prince William diss, tons of new jargon (this sh*t “cray!” instead of “crazy!”), and for Jay-Z to proclaim his general surprise at how ballin’ he actually is. On “Otis”, Kanye rules over his own astonishing Otis Redding sampler, where he goes toe-to-toe with Jay over ego quips, and though Jay threatens to call the paparazzi on himself, Kanye ultimately delivers the winning blow: “Sophisticated ignorance, write my curses in cursive!”
The boastful boasting tends to then get redundant, but a signature Swizz Beatz production stutter laces “Welcome To The Jungle”, with culminates in Jay’s best verse on the album, and “Who Gon’ Stop Me” rumbles and grumbles while Kanye smirks in your face yet again (“That’s pig latin, Itch-bay”). But there is a bit diversity if you can stick it out: on the rather bravado-less “New Day”, Kanye and Jay write somber apology letters to sons they haven’t bore yet, and promise to never pass on their mistakes: Kanye just wants his son to be liked, while Jay worries that he’s already ruined his kid’s life.
“Murder To Excellence” offers one half of poignant statements on black-on-black violence and a latter half of proud toasts to successful black leaders in history, and both are equally effective in making their points, but rightfully so, the beat on “Excellence” triumphs that of “Murder”. Frank Ocean returns on “Made In America” to honor the real kings, including Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr., yet once again, Jay proves to be the more thoughtful artist: where ‘Ye is stuttering about b*tches again, Jay-Z pays tribute to his grandmother and the streets that raised him.
“Why I Love You” is the tragic close, where you can nearly hear the thrones crumbling as Jay chronicles a Judas-esque betrayal from everyone who he once cared about and Kanye can only watch from afar and chime in with echoes. Jay-Z is imagining that he’s burning alive, yet somehow still breathes: “I’m so sorry I just couldn’t die for you.”
Watch The Throne isn’t a perfect album, as the duality of it all is skewed slightly too far right: on the oft-neglected end of the spectrum, it’s a retrospective look at two men who have accomplished feats that mortals only dream of, yet consistently torment themselves with the mistakes of their past and their growing apprehension (and slight fear) of the future. On the other- the more prominent other- it’s a smashing soundclash of grandiose productions starring a pair of cocky assholes who are richer than your favorite rapper could ever dream to be, and feel the need to discuss it incessantly. For two kings, that’s as real as it gets.