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Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch The Throne (real-time track by track review).

August 13, 2011

Jay-Z and Kanye West’s collaborative album, Watch The Throne, was always going to be a self-important, grandiose affair. To this end, the magnificent artwork (creatively directed by Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci) exudes opulence, with the cover appearing to be engraved gold, while inside Kanye and Jay’s faces are morphed into tigers’ jaws. So the artwork is striking, fashionable, and strong. What of the music?

Of course, this isn’t the first time that Jay-Z and Kanye West have collaborated. From the former’s celebrated album The Blueprint, to West’s recent “Monster” single, the two have been a frequent pairing. One question is whether Watch The Throne, which is a near-perfect melding of the two rappers’ most recent albums, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (West’s magnum opus to date) and The Blueprint 3, would exist without West’s latest solo album. It certainly wouldn’t sound the same, built on a similar set of soulful samples (courtesy of Otis Redding, Nina Simone and Curtis Mayfield, among others), classic Wu-Tang-esque production (partly courtesy of the RZA) and an incorporation of unusual effects (“Lift Off” has a countdown to a rocket launch and deliberately stutters Beyoncé’s hook at the end) and modern styles for dizzying effect (“Who Gon Stop Me” thrillingly and unpredictably descends into dubstep). Unfortunately, Fantasy means that Watch The Throne sounds less innovative than its predecessor, but judged on its own merits, it is nevertheless a strong entry in both rappers’ catalogues.

Another question might be which rapper comes out on top. Although at times they sound less in sync than others, this isn’t really the issue; it’s not about one guy against the other, but what they can accomplish as a team with their two considerable powers put together.The album is bombastic, swollen with the promise that hip-hop’s magnates have to live up to. Here is a track-by-track review.

No Church In The Wild

A sinister bassline accompanied by Frank Ocean’s singing opens Watch The Throne. “What’s a god to a non-believer who don’t believe in anything?” Mysterious and cryptic, the song is nevertheless thrilling. Autotuned vocals hark back to West’s 808s & Heartbreak. Both rappers seem to be authoritative and yet feel outcast by religion… are they trying to be socially conscious? “Love is cursed by monogamy – something that the pastor don’t preach / something that a teacher can’t teach / when we die, the money we can’t keep / but we probably spend it all coz the pain ain’t cheap” (West). Are these men, who are fabulously wealthy and not particularly modest about it, trying to be human? If so, it’s a commendable move.

One thing that is confusing – several songs have little instrumental interludes at the end – what purpose do these serve? These do seem unnecessary and swiftly become irritating…

Lift Off

Pianos and strings make this song sound big and propulsive. Beyoncé sings the hook impeccably. “I’m supercharged / We’re about to take this whole thing to Mars” – they’re aware how big stars (!) they are, and also aware that this album is an Event that should be launched. Just the way that the album was launched in a planetarium… The rocket launch countdown could perhaps be a subtle link to “Countdown” on Beyoncé’s 4?

Niggas In Paris

Another sinister-sounding song that has echoes of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells”. “What’s 50 grand to a motherfucker like me, can you please remind me?” Jay-Z is rich. Again, by demonstrating how big stars they are and how much they reign over the game, they are proving how much of an Event this album is. Jay and Kanye go back and forth on this track, which shows however that this album is far from a phoned-in effort. Jay-Z is rich, and Kanye has had sex with many girls. Thematically, this doesn’t break any ground for rap!

Otis

The Otis Redding sample brings soul, and harkens back to West and Jay-Z’s work on The Blueprint (as well as most of West’s early output which mixed hip hop and soul samples to thrilling results). Kanye: “Last week they didn’t see me cause I pulled up in my other Benz” (sounds like “underpants” !!).  West coins the phrase “luxury rap” – looking at the album cover as well as the duo’s individual reputations, is this the genre description they would ascribe themselves? Is it because of wealth, or rhyme quality (or both)?

Gotta Have It

The moaning at the beginning sounds like a black spiritual. There are elements here that also draw upon Nas’ Untitled, with that albums specific evocation and reference to black culture’s past of slavery. “LOLOLOLOL White America, assassinate my character” – Kanye sounds like he is challenging or second guessing people. Is this in reference to the infamous Bush / Katrina incident? Or when Kanye West humiliated Taylor Swift at the VMAs? “Oh shit, it’s just blacks on blacks on blacks” – West again… realising that discrimination and misunderstanding comes from his own race as well as others? Who is to blame?

New Day

It’s quite audacious to autotune your Nina Simone sample, especially when it’s her most famous song “Feeling Good”. Kanye West and Jay-Z are trying to push music forward, and symbolise that after the follies of youth, the two men have reached a stage where they enjoy being mature and responsible – “It’s a new day, and I’m feeling good”. Here, they talk about how they would raise their children and the mistakes that they themselves made in their youth, which humanises them and exposes some truth underneath their bravado. “I just want him to be someone people like / I don’t want him to be hated all the time, judged / Don’t be like your daddy” (West) / “Sorry junior, I already ruined ya / Coz you ain’t even alive, paparazzi pursuin’ ya / Sins of the father already made your life ten times harder” (Jay) – “Teach you good values so you cherish it… My dad left me I promise never to repeat it” (Jay). A touching song that is a lyrical highlight.

That’s My Bitch

Both rappers praise their women. Beyoncé gets a shout-out or two. West name-drops Basquiat. “Why all the icons all white?” (Jay, who then name-drops Naomi, Halle Berry, Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek)

Welcome To The Jungle

This song picks up on the pictures of Jay and Kanye’s faces merged with tigers. The songs works off a “the world is a jungle / life is hard” metaphor. Jay – “My tears is tatted / my rag in my pocket / I’m just looking for love / I know somebody got it” – he inhabits the character of a gangster who can’t express emotion in public because that’s not how the stereotype works. It’s not generally something that’s permitted – but West and Jay have got to a point where they are comfortable eschewing stereotypes and exposing a little more of who they genuinely are.

Who Gon Stop Me

This sounds grimy, dirty and modern all at once, and is one of the standouts on the album. West and Jay stand, confident in their unstoppability, “Heard Yeezy was racist / well I guess it’s so on basis…. I only like green faces” (Kanye) – “This is something like the holocaust / millions of our people lost” (Kanye) / “Black on black” (Jay) – urging people to “beat the odds” and achieve their dreams and be unstoppable. A thrilling entry. Jay-Z references how far he has come from being a drug-dealer in his youth.

Murder To Excellence

A song of two halves, “Murder” and “Excellence”.

“Murder” – Chants jostle with clashing drums and a tuneful bass guitar, while Kanye and Jay-Z rap socially / racially conscious lyrics. “41 souls murdered in 50 hours” (Kanye) Again, they fixate on the crimes that black people commit against themselves. “314 soldiers died in Iraq… 509 died in Chicago” (Kanye) – some interesting reality.

“Excellence” – an immediate transition to a different sample and ominous piano vaguely reminiscent of an Eminem production, except less thunderous. From talking about murder on the streets, to the injustices the rappers have seen on their path to excellence: “Domino, domino / only spot a few blacks the higher I go” (Jay). “In the past, if you picture events like a black tie / What’s the last thing you expect to see? Black guys” (Kanye) – an axe to grind!

Made In America

A sweet song, where Frank Ocean eulogises the rappers’ parents, along with Biblical figures and leaders of the black / civil rights movement in the US. Kanye tells an abridged version of his meeting with fellow producer No I.D., and how he was able to use his new-found wealth to treat his late mother well. Jay-Z does an appreciated bit of storytelling, pretending to be boiling water in the same kitchen where his grandmother cooked banana pudding, when really he’s cooking up something quite different. “The streets raised me, pardon my bad manners” (Jay). This song feels like we are reaching the home stretch of the album (which is true), and gives us something positive, as well as lets us in on the sense of accomplishment that the rappers feel not only to have survived the streets and their upbringings, but also to have ascended to such heights of fame. They are aware and appreciative of how comfortable their lives are.

Why I Love You

Dirty guitars and beats slam in and interrupt the peaceful reverence of the previous track for this album closer (on the standard edition). The rhyme speed has picked up, and Jay pledges his loyalty to those nearest and dearest to him. Mr. Hudson, singing the hook, for once does not irritate! Now that is progress. Kanye and Jay-Z thank one another for the positive effects they’ve had on each other’s careers – which is why this (rather than the previous track, which would have been sonically more appropriate) is the album closer. Unless you have the deluxe…

Illest Motherfucker Alive

Climactic piano, synths and operatic choruses back Kanye and Jay’s various boasts. This sounds too big for its lyrics (“what the ending of Scarface should feel like”, apparently), and perhaps explains why it was relegated to just the deluxe.

H.A.M

The first single finally shows up towards the end of the deluxe album. Next to the album’s tracks, this sounds somewhat flimsy production-wise (until its apocalyptic bridge, at least). A re-evaluation of the album’s aims by Kanye and Jay-Z probably relegated this to the end of the deluxe.

Primetime

This song is perfectly adequate. I’m tired. This album is long!

The Joy

Samples Curtis Mayfield’s “The Makings of You”, giving a warmth to the deluxe album’s end that feels like proper closure after the epicness of the whole thing. It was bloated, bombastic and at times could have been trimmed somewhat, but it was very engaging! Once again, Kanye and Jay-Z expose their tenderness and talking about their families, and how this is just as important as the wealth and beauties they’ve promoted elsewhere on the record. A laid-back treat for those who get the deluxe.

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One comment

  1. […] 5. Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch The Throne (read the full-length review here) […]



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