Review Summary: What Watch the Throne needs is not a grander purpose, but any purpose.
Indecisiveness has plagued Watch the Throne
since its inception. First it was a five-song EP; now, it is a full blown album with bonus tracks. They finished the album in March; in April, Mike Dean announced that they restarted the entire mixing process. "H.A.M." was the first single, a supposed indicator of things to come; now, it hardly fits the album and is a bonus track more out of necessity than anything else. In April, we knew "Lift Off", featuring Beyonce and Bruno Mars, would be the second single; instead, "Otis" took its place, and Bruno Mars lost his feature.
Of course, things change. The musical process is never straightforward. Inspiration strikes an artist, and he writes six songs in the timespan it normally takes to write half a song. These songs completely change the course of an album, and suddenly, the focus of the project changes. Negotiations with the label and the publisher hit a snag, and the release date gets pushed back. The final mix comes back, and there are mistakes. Contract negotiations with collaborating artists fall through.
Still, I bring up these moments of indecisiveness because indecisiveness is the key flaw in Jay-Z and Kanye West's much-anticipated collaborative album. Indecisiveness keeps Watch the Throne
from being the hip-hop classic it could be.
Everything else is in place for a truly memorable album. The list of producers is nothing short of astounding, featuring not just well-known names, but names that have produced the biggest, best, and most memorable hip-hop tracks in the last two decades. Even more impressively, they all turn in their best work-- from RZA's cold yet soulful sampling of Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" on "New Day" to Q-Tip's classic hip-hop bombast on "That's My Bitch". The Neptunes turn in their best beat in years on "Gotta Have It", sampling James Brown in a realm completely removed from funk and soul. 88-Keys creates a positively epic opening track with "No Church in the Wild", full of creeping guitar riffs and pulsating bass, building tension that simply never releases. Even classical choral composer Eric Whitacre tweeted about the track's excellence, and it's easy to see why. It's intimidating when a great No I.D. beat gets relegated to a bonus track because everything else is just too damn good.
Of course, Kanye, a co-producer on every track, forces each song into his realm with a strong guiding hand. "That's My Bitch", in the midst of its boom-bap, launches into a post-chorus featuring West's recent muse, Justin Vernon, and some more modern synths. In the hands of any other producer, the jump would seem out of place, but ever since his early tracks for Jay, Kanye's trademark has been blending the past with the present seamlessly. That makes "Otis" such a surprise, as the sample of Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" creates almost the entire instrumental track-- no additional beats, no additional synths-- but don't sleep on that subtle but oh-so-effective deep bass kick at the beginning of each phrase. Providing some much-needed punctuation to the bareness of the track, the bass is a classic example of West's attention to detail as a producer. Every song on Watch the Throne
sounds immense, no doubt the result of not only big producers but also big money. The mix is meant for speakers you can’t afford, with layers upon layers of sonic detail waiting to be discovered.
Unfortunately, all that effort on the production feels wasted, because despite the album’s track-by-track excellence, neither rapper seems to know what Watch the Throne
is. Kanye and Jay are indecisive about the direction and focus of the album, instead attempting to cover a wide variety of topics in a vast array of styles. Much of the album is a brag album; each rapper drops line after line about their favorite luxury brands. West sums it up best in “Otis”, saying, “This is luxury rap/ The Hermes of verses,” speaking volumes about the album sonically and lyrically. But if Watch the Throne
is a brag album, it deflates the purpose of songs like “New Day”, where Kanye and Jay rap to their future, unborn sons, regretful about how difficult their life will be as children of superstars. Just as it’s hard to take “New Day” seriously on the same album where Jay asks, “What’s 50 grand to a mother***er like me"” and Kanye brags, “I made ‘Jesus Walks’, I’m never going to hell,” “New Day” contradicts the power Kanye and Jay try to assert. “Welcome to the Jungle” displays unnecessary paranoia on behalf of the two superstars, feeling threatened, but by no one in particular.
While contradictions are what make albums like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
human, these are contradictions that sound contrived and forced. Frank Ocean asks, “What’s a god to a nonbeliever"” on “No Church in the Wild”, but later invokes “sweet baby Jesus” on “Made in America”, pandering to each track without a thought to the coherence of the album.
Since Watch the Throne
dropped, writers and peers have criticized the two rappers for not representing something larger than themselves, wishing for an album focused around the topics discussed on “Murder to Excellence”. The song decries the murder of African-Americans before segueing into the second section, where the focus shifts to black excellence. Chuck D of Public Enemy took to YouTube to rap over the original “Try a Little Tenderness”, calling on Jay and Kanye to “elevate the masses to try a little bit more to reflect Otis’ heart rather than swag, because [Jay and Kanye are] too good to be less.” That desire seems misguided. After all, Kanye’s last two albums, 808s and Heartbreak
and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
, were intensely personal. Jay’s best albums, such as The Blueprint
, are the brag albums that Watch the Throne
could be. Watch the Throne
going to be an album centered around larger-than-life egos.
What the album needs is not a grander purpose, but any
purpose. Kanye and Jay couldn’t even decide on an opener; after the fantastic “No Church in the Wild” prepares us for fireworks and bombast, we’re given the lackluster “Lift Off”, which feels like an introduction after a prologue. Kanye stumbles through a sung verse that almost makes the rumored Bruno Mars feature seem like a better option, and Beyoncé sings around the song title. Its inherently poppy nature fits more as the introduction to Blueprint III
than Watch the Throne
. It offers nothing to add to the theme of the album and tries to fill the role that “No Church in the Wild” already excellently fulfills.
Despite the lack of focus, Jay turns in his best performance since The Black Album
, and Kanye lets him “go Michael... Jackson, Tyson, Jordan, Game 6” for most of the album, as Jay warns he will do on “Ni**as in Paris”. Kanye’s verses, few and far between, seem tame and uninspired, but he makes up for it behind the boards. So it’s a shame, really, that Kanye and Jay couldn’t focus on something smaller. “Who Gon Stop Me” could be an immense, powerful brag track, but on the song’s chorus, Kanye says, “This is something like the Holocaust/ Millions of our people lost,” a couplet completely removed from the song’s theme, directed at seemingly no one. Songs like “New Day” and “Welcome to the Jungle” could form the basis for an elaborately personal album, beating Drake at his own game of balancing fame and depression. Instead, we’re left with a mess of an album that sounds too good to hate.