It’s here. “Watch the Throne” has caught your attention: the anticipation, fuelled by no advance copies or leaks. It’s a welcome throwback to the “old school” days of album releases. It’s also a rare coming together of two of the biggest rappers (and artists) on the planet on the same team. We are told that this is an “historic” occasion for our beloved genre, but be warned, dear Reader: history is written by the victors, and just because Jay-Z and Kanye West have finally made “Watch the Throne,” it is still only the quality level that will dictate whether it makes it into the books as a truly memorable moment in hip hop. So, once you press play, how does it fare?
Your first impressions won’t be all too favourable â€“ BUT persist, as the album improves at a swift pace on each subsequent listen. It clocks in at a relatively lean 46 minutes, with only 12 tracks, but it is a densely packed work that takes time to reveal itself. Perhaps not so much musically (although WTT does contain many a twist) but more so lyrically, as there are “frequent blink and you’ll miss it” lines and clever interplays between Jay and ‘Ye. There are no guest verses from other rappers, just choruses from singers, and relative newcomer Frank Ocean manages to bag two spots on the album. He blesses the superbly understated opener “No Church in the Wild” with an almost Mos Def-like treatment (matching the moody beat effectively), and both rappers come in hard with visually-depictive verses that put the listener right firmly with them (plus at times, it’s almost like a clever piece of wordplay by Ocean, as he seemingly sings “No church in a while” which feeds into the agnostic decadence).
If the first track acts as an executive summary, it hints at diverse subject matter that darts all over the place â€“ this proves to be the case, as we jump into the prerequisite track featuring Beyonce. It’s also, early on, the first disappointment of WTT, as “Lift Off” doesn’t manage to get into orbit. It has an overly obvious “THIS IS EPIC” stamped on its ass, and the production sabotages B’s attempts at a soaring chorus. Kanye comes in singing badly (with/without Auto Tune), and Jay spits a pointless 8 bar verse. But then, with just over a minute left, it breaks down and turns into an infinitely superior instrumental, with a gorgeous mellow roll to it. Beyonce sounds better, and it’s just perplexing as to why the dominant beat even made it when the following 48 seconds fits so much better. The cringingly titled “Niggas in Paris” is, in every way, a Big Sean song from “Finally Famous” that got lost along the way. However, once you get past the ringtone melody and OTT bragging, it functions relatively well as “loud, obnoxious rap music” (and the breakdown works well, with the distorted bass contrasting well with the operatic backing vocals). The first single, and undoubted star of the album, follows â€“ “Otis.” It’s an infinitely repeatable display of brashness, soul and it positively reeks of excess. The chopped up beat is vintage Kanye, and fuck knows how much it cost them to clear the sample (but it certainly explains the insane ticket pricing for their upcoming tour). In the words of Audio Two, what more can I say?
The sampling continues (one of many James Brown grunts peppering the album) although this time, it is handled by The Neptunes on the brilliant “Gotta Have It” â€“ it is sure to weave into your brain, even if Jay makes an unwise “planking on a million” reference. Another standout brings Nina back on “New Day” â€“ yes, it is incredibly similar to Pac’s “Letter 2 My Unborn” but it’s just done so well here: the reflective beat, the Simone chorus and both verses are top notch. From the tender West/Carter to the ones that go harder: “That’s My Bitch” is, however, another moment of mediocrity. It samples “Apache” (like that’s never been done before), and it’s a throwback track that sounds digitally mastered (when analogue would have sounded better), and the chorus just doesn’t function as it should, although Jay’s verse is entertaining. It does carry the album forward onto the genial “Welcome to the Jungle” â€“ remember when Swizz Beatz was an incredibly exciting teenage genius? Well, he’s baaaaack! He laces an unstoppable and insistent beat for Jigga (a.k.a. “the black Axl Rose”) to spit some vicious lyrics, and spellbinding couplets.
It’s difficult to say if there is going to be a backlash against the next track, “Who Gon Stop Me,” where Kanye spits “this is something like the Holocaust” but musically, it’s another diverting moment on “Watch the Throne.” Heavily influenced by the UK scene, with lashings of dubstep, and it’s reminiscent of tracks like RKZ’s “Gonna Be That” (watch the dope alternative edit of that song HERE). The tenth song is one that seems to have been trending on Twitter all day â€“ “Murder to Excellence.” Again, the beat splits into two, with the first being rather similar to “Power” (unsurprisingly, the producer S1 handled both tracks). The first half has Kanye spitting about harsh realities (“Murder”), and Jay ends up taking the track to a more celebratory feel (“Excellence”) combined with a clarion call for more people to join him. The penultimate track is truly awful “Made in America” with a horribly cloying chorus from Frank Ocean: it’s as if the school bully dunked “Forever Young” into the toilets and pulled the flush. Thanks also to the flaccid beat, potentially engaging lyrics are undermined. The album closer is the barnstorming “Why I Love You” where beat, concept, lyrics and chorus all work together to produce a fun slant on the typical “hater” track. And that’s that, unless you include the Deluxe Version’s 4 cuts â€“ most are probably divisive, but “The Joy” can certainly be subbed in for some of the weaker main efforts.
Once you’ve listened to “Watch the Throne” a few times, it starts to truly sink in. As it does, you start to see the wood for the trees, and there are various issues afflicting it. The sequencing doesn’t help, as things just don’t flow together all that well. But whilst there are definite standout tracks, there are also letdowns. It’s all pretty specific: “Lift Off” and “Niggas In Paris” are decent, but in the 2 and 3 positions should have been stronger (the former could have been if they had just used the alternative beat). Perhaps “That’s My Bitch” is more subjective, but “Made In America” is an undoubted clunker that, I’m sure, most hip hop fans will delete from their playlist quick sharp. The couple of dubstep tracks may well alienate more straightforward rap fans, too. So it seems that half of the album is impressive, a quarter just isn’t good enough, and the rest is truly debatable. Does that match the incredible amount of hype it has commanded? Or, at the very least, give it a pass due to being “historic” and so on? Well, although it improved, the first couple of listens just kept making me think about the recent Bad Meets Evil EP from Eminem and Royce. There are subtle differences. You see, Eminem and Royce da 5’9″ sounded like old FRIENDS rapping for fun in completely harmony; Jay-Z and Kanye West sound like a couple of guys that have been COLLEAGUES for a decade. Back in January, I wrote something in preparation for “Watch the Throne” and luckily, the end result has come out better than hoped â€“ but maybe that’s because my expectations had been relatively low. It never sounds forced, but it does seem restrained at times. Moreover, there isn’t a real feeling of playing for the same side, of overwhelming team spirit (compare that with Damian Marley and Nas on their completely harmonious “Distant Relatives” last year).
Whilst at times, you feel a part of the party, more often than not, you’re excluded from Jay and Kanye’s VIP area. They rap about such opulent things, with Carter declaring that he’s forgotten what a miniscule $50,000 feels like. Talk of models, sex with models, Beyonce’s breasts, expensive watches, cars, not to mention sampling Otis Redding (which probably cost the size of the GDP of a small country). It all just gets a bit much and could have really affected the album, if it weren’t for the sense of humour the two rappers frequently display. It’s also good to see the two unafraid to go in over more experimental beats, plus they both deliver solid lyrics throughout (even if they rarely get exhilarating). The best moments (aside from “Otis” which couldn’t fail) are when Jay and ‘Ye are spitting about genuinely personal things, being a bit goofy, or about societal subject matter around them (“No Church.” and “.Jungle”), not just money and power. It’s certainly an enjoyable listen, with a few great songs â€“ and at least it actually happened â€“ but with the combined power, money and talent that Carter and West continually brag about, you can’t help but feel that “Watch the Throne” could and should have been better.