Def Jam/Roc-A-Fella/Roc Nation
Jay-Z and Kanye West
The danger in scribbling down a hasty review of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne, especially for a writer who is quick to react to the bellow of so-called “significant” pop music projects like this album (tentative raised hand), is that said writer might immediately be taken by the triumphal calls of a track like “Lift Off” which, upon first listen, glistens with an orchestral rap radiance befitting such a pair of pop icons, when, in reality, the track is just a jumble of overwrought synth bloat, a wasted Beyonce cameo and lame half-sung half-rapped auto-tuned nonsense. On the other hand, the danger in waiting for the gold and platinum dust to settle before writing about the album is that one could be swayed by the reviews that came before, especially the negative ones accusing Jay and West of recklessly indulging themselves in their fame and excess, thereby further diluting hip-hop’s greater meaning within the mainstream context. So what’s a writer to do? I suppose some comfort can be taken in the old proverb about history ultimately determining the legacy of its people, places and things. It’s impossible to tell now if Pop Music will canonize Watch The Throne, but if there’s one thing this critic has gleaned from listening to the record at least a dozen times in succession, it’s that it’s much more fun to deliberate over the question than it is to actually listen to the music. And that alone should tell you something about this project.
By now everyone should agree Watch The Throne does not represent Jay-Z or Kanye West’s best work. Not even close. Those honors still belong to The Blueprint and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, respectively. Only a fool would have truly believed Throne would turn out to be the monument future alien races would use to craft their story of human history, as the hype machine strongly suggested pre-album release. Rather, this record is more like a not-quite-inconsequential mark left on an ancient cave wall with just enough historical significance to be photographed, sealed under glass and exhibited away somewhere for the curiosity of mere humans. Or, in less hyperbolic terms: Watch The Throne is a moderately satisfying abbreviation of the World’s Two Greatest Rappers telling us why exactly they are; a novelty of sorts. It’s also like a well-executed buddy-cop flick that’s worth the first price of admission and contains just enough re-watchable moments to elicit a brief modicum of joy when re-discovered running in perpetuity on basic cable.
Currently, Jay and West are in positions 1 and 1A for “Best in Show: Displays of Rap Life Decadence.” When it comes to wealth, no one wears it better and no one tells it
better louder. With all the high-end product placement and opulent vacation destination name-checking on this album, the two further separate themselves from every poor sap relegated to punching clocks five days a week for a living. They’ve taken quite a few critical hits over this given the current economic climate which is curious considering critics have been privy to the duo’s lifestyle for a minute now. Yes, the blatant sumptuousness shows a lack of regard for the proletariat’s suffering at the hands of greedy Wall Street-ers, but that criticism was applicable well before The Great Recession. It’s also a fact that the majority of listeners happily enjoying the displays of excess are those located in tax brackets much lower than the two men telling the stories. In any case, Jay and Ye are light years beyond even the newly-minted millionaire rappers still getting accustomed to the heft of new jewels and car insurance premiums, and they spend at least half the album reminding us of this.
Opener “No Church in the Wild” describes a fame universe so far-removed from reality where men of stature like The Throne (Jay and Kanye’s version of “the royal we”) are able to create the laws, the sexual practices, the religion, even, governing that world. “Human beings to a 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?” asks Odd Future-affiliate Frank Ocean rhetorically on the hook. It’s safe to assume Jay and West figure themselves somewhere high in that hierarchy, but give them credit for at least taking a step back to consider the repercussions of their status. The two are less generous elsewhere, like on “Niggas in Paris” which seems only to exist for the purposes of letting us know the rappers are, indeed, hanging out in Paris. “Otis,” the widely-celebrated single built around a chopped-up sample of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” is entertaining brag-rap that tickles the brain’s pleasure center for about three minutes and then easily fades from memory. Watch The Throne’s commercial success at least partially depends on the assumption that we enjoy watching Jay and Kanye “acting like themselves” and early returns suggest the market research was correct.
Still, there is good here. One of the most edifying things about these two rapper’s pop art is that they’re not afraid to unpack heavy emotional baggage in public. Assume what you want to about the degree of calculation employed in these endeavors, but a song like “New Day,” on which the two speak to their unborn sons about sins they hope will not be revisited upon them, keeps the rappers tethered, at least emotionally, to everyday folks. The two-song sequence near the end of the album, “Murder to Excellence” and “Made in America,” feels out-of-place contextually, but is a fairly provocative treatise on what it means to achieve status as Black men in America. While the “Pity me because I have so many haters” laments have rung hollow for these two for quite some time, their communally-shared burden of racial indignities, both past and present, is made starkly relevant in these songs. Easy escape from that affliction is too great a task for even these Hercules of pop culture and it’s why Kanye West and Jay-Z manage to fascinate beyond all other contemporary musical icons — Bruce Springsteen and Bono don’t have these problems, after all.
By now, Watch The Throne is functioning in exactly the way it was intended: as a commodity first and foremost, and as a method of perpetuating the Jay-Z and Kanye West cult-of-personality machine secondarily. That much of the album satisfies in the way a fast food meal satiates a hungry stomach at four in the morning is evidence to what listeners are willing to put themselves through for instant gratification. Ultimately, the idea of Throne is more thrilling than the execution, which is simultaneously the most disappointing and unsurprising thing about the album. We would be suckers to put our trust in projects like this, that the artists responsible could be counted on to deliver an experience that transcended our greatest expectations, and yet still many people fall for the ruse. The problem is that Jay-Z and Kanye West are no longer just artists. They’re in the proverbial bed with Don Draper and his minion of ploying pitchmen. And, while fans may still be willing to trust the original progenitors of the art, it’s another matter altogether trusting the system that eternalizes them.