Album Review: WATCH THE THRONE
The much hyped and highly guarded megaproject from two of hip hop’s biggest superstars is finally here. The superstars I’m speaking about are of course Jay-Z and Kanye West and the album is Watch the Throne, an album which in the last year has turned into the Holy Grail of hip hop. It was speculated about without more then a couple singles being officially released, one track getting leaked, a select few hearing the full album in a private listening session (who in turn spread its legendary status amongst us peasants) and an experimental short film that documented their unique studio sessions.
Originally announced by Kanye last year as an EP, the album has morphed into something much larger and much more important. An album that Jay and Kanye would remake three times before finally being satisfied. An album that would see the duo meeting up wherever the other one was in the world to record songs in makeshift studios. From the Mercer Hotel in New York to a private manor in Paris they insisted on being in the same room while writing and performing. The approach stems from the recording veterans needing to do things differently this time around. After 20 albums between them, their goal to defy the norm and past accomplishments is not a want, but a necessity.
This approach continued through to the release schedule of Watch the Throne which, to no surprise, proved to be controversial as iTunes and Best Buy were given exclusive windows for the digital and physical release respectively. What they lost in independent retailer support, however, they gained in having an album that went un-leaked before its release. That in and of itself is a noteworthy achievement. Sure, it helped spur on the album’s Platinum status just in pre-orders, but it also created something that many of us haven’t experienced in a long time: a true event album. Meaning everyone got to listen to it at the same time once it was released last night on iTunes. And thanks to the wonders of Twitter fans were able to tweet running commentary as they listened to each song for the first time. As a matter of fact #ThroneDay is trending as I write this. So even before the first sip, this Holy Grail was looking mighty sweet. Now let’s get to tasting the damn thing already.
Two things are apparent on the first listen through of Watch the Throne (15-track Deluxe Edition): the sound is epic and the tone is dark. The first thing should come as no surprise as Kanye West oversees the album’s production and his ability to create epic-sounding hip hop tracks is his superpower (see: “Jesus Walks”, “Brooklyn Go Hard”, the whole 808s & Heartbreaks album). The second thing is a bit more of a curveball as the album is a dark deep dive with a cohesive heaviness not felt since Mobb Deep’s The Infamous. I would even go as so far as to call this the overground companion to that underground classic. Kanye might be feeling the same way as he references a famous line from The Infamous on the track “Murder to Excellence”:
It’s a war going on outside we ain’t safe from
I feel the pain in my city wherever I go
314 soldiers died in Iraq, 509 died in Chicago
But this is Jay-Z and Kanye West. Where’s the “Big Pimpin” braggadocio, the “Slow Jamz” sonnets? Instead we get references to the Holocaust in “Who Gon Stop Me” and Kanye’s haunting “she turned around and looked at me and said ‘alive’” refrain in “Welcome to the Jungle”. Watch the Throne is the culmination of years of success for Jay-Z and Kanye West who’ve earned the ability to do what they want on this album and they don’t let that opportunity go to waste. Instead they’ve challenged themselves to get into deeper subject matter against much more mature production.
This artistic liberation, this reaching for something that means something, is noticeable right from the opening track as the post-apocalyptic rumblings of “No Church in the Wild” kicks in and Frank Ocean croons:
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?
The qualitative lyrical baseline is set high for the rest the album by Jay-Z’s cinematic two bar opening in the same song:
Tears on the mausoleum floor
Blood stains the Colosseum doors
Lies on the lips of priests
Thanksgiving disguised as a feast
And continues with Kanye delivering a darkly twisted outlook on his own riches:
Coke on her black skin
Make a stripe like a zebra, I call that jungle fever
It’s this unfettered introspective look at the bleak fringes of their own celebritydom that is the source of Watch the Throne‘s darkness. And is also the source of the duo’s most personal work to date, especially Kanye who digs deeper then he ever has before in the RZA-produced soliloquy to a future son on “New Day”:
And I’ll never let my son have an ego
He’ll be nice to everyone, wherever we go
I mean I might even make him be Republican
So everybody know he love white people
And I’ll never let him leave his college girlfriend
And get caught up with the groupies in the whirlwind
And I’ll never let him ever hit the telethon
I mean even if people dyin’ and the world ends
If anything the album is more important to Kanye’s growth as an artist then Jay-Z’s. Jay has always been the wise one, the hustler who has seen it all and was not afraid to let the world know. The rapper’s rapper, earning his stripes with hard work and patience. And it seems like Kanye has finally earned the same level of respect from his mentor Jay who once reprimanded his cocky protégé on “Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix)” by telling him: “I got it from here ‘Ye damn!” Hopefully with this album he gains the same respect from the public who’d rather focus on his poorly judged rants.
The maturation for Kanye doesn’t stop lyrically as most of the production on Watch the Throne is collaborative in credits and in sound. This is something different for the normally control-freak producer who is more then eager to share the light on this album with a bevy of up-and-comers and veterans, a list that includes Hit-Boy, 88-Keys, The Neptunes, Swizz Beatz , Q-Tip and Pete Rock. Even with this eclectic production team Kanye crafts the album into a cohesive wall of brooding sound. From the tension-filled staccato rhythm of “Niggas in Paris” to the haunting hymn in “Gotta Have It” to the nervous electric buzz of “Why I Love You” the album maintains a steady direction through an ominous black cloud of music.
All in all the subject matter and feel of Watch the Throne may not be fodder for your typical summer album release, but its exactly what Kanye and Jay needed to do at this point in their career. They needed to reach for something higher then the top album spot and that reach extended into something with brains, heart and soul. And thankfully for us that Holy Grail of an album is finally here and it tastes so fucking good.