Monday, August 8, 2011

Jay-Z & Kanye West - Watch the Throne | Album Review

The Throne (Jay-Z & Kanye West)
Watch the Throne
Release Date: August 8, 2011
Roc-A-Fella/Roc Nation/Def Jam

It’s no coincidence that an album of such epic magnitude would arrive at a time when douchebaggery and swag are at an all-time high; the year that was ushered in by the ramblings of Charlie “Winning” Sheen; the year the Jersey Shore invaded Europe; the year the Miami Heat won the NBA Fi- …never mind. The buildup to the record was nuts. The anticipation for the leak release was off the Richter scale. The hype suggests something bigger than hip hop © dead prez. Watch the Throne was pitched as more than an album – it was, still is, an event: luxury rap recorded on that rarified air on cloud nine were ‘Ye-Z dwell, unattainable to us peasants. Like Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar, we are not worthy. Like Steve and Doug Butabi, we sho’ as hell ain’t getting in the club. But for some strange, unexplainable reason, that won’t stop us from trying to get in. Every. Single. Night. Even if the club sucks, the drinks are overpriced and the chicks are stuck up biyetches, we’re still trying to get in – even though we don’t fit in. We watch. Let’s Watch the Throne:

1. No Church in the Wild (feat. Frank Ocean)

If your speakers aren’t turned way up when you start listening to this album, you’ve already fucked up. As soon as those submerged guitar string samples courtesy of Phil Manzanera kick in, you realize that this album is monumental, whether it’s a flawless project or not (psst… it’s not, but that doesn’t matter just yet). Odd Future’s own Frank Ocean provides a compelling hook, which adds an intriguing layer to the Darwinian existentialism of Jay and ‘Ye’s raps. In both sound and execution, this reminds me of The Blueprint 3’s intro track “What We Talkin' About”. These tracks may not feature Pain in da Ass, but they effectively set the tone and delineate the overarching thesis for the project. In Watch the Throne’s case, I perceive that the message throughout is a passive aggressive one. In ‘Ye-Z’s deliveries, you can hear the instigation, the war cry for some competition; at the same time, they demonstrate the boastfulness of knowing full well that no other emcee(s) can go toe to toe with their pedigree. To highlight Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “braggadocio” has long-been a journalistic cliché, but it’s as vivid as ever on “No Church in the Wild” and throughout Watch the Throne.

2. Lift Off (feat. Beyoncé)

Pardon me for sounding like a chauvinistic pig, but wifey Beyoncé shoulda had no part on this track, let alone the album. On her Yoko Ono shit, Bey crashes the party early on what should’ve otherwise been a gentlemen’s affair – a musical bachelor party of sorts. Exaggerating a bit – okay, more than a bit – this track is comparable to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Crash and burn. Auto-Tune? Really? Aside from the fact that it’s terrible as a standalone track, “Lift Off” does itself even more harm than good by following the dark “No Church in the Wild”. It’s like mixing vodka and milk © Prodigy

3. Niggas in Paris

After the abortion that is “Lift Off”, we’re treated with the levity of Will Ferrell’s antics on Blades of Glory and a rambunctious instrumental which more than earns a spot on the sequel to Khal’s Niggas Is A Beautiful Thang mix, should he ever choose to drop one (fingers crossed). The collar-popping swagnificance (ugh!) of “Niggas in Paris” doubles up on the duo’s ’09 track “Hate”, shedding the droning vocal loop from that The Blueprint 3 track, and opting instead for some fun-paced, southern-ish production. This shit so cra’ it’s essentially a permission slip to act as retarded as possible. Watch the Throne boasts some tracks addressing serious subject matter, but levity, as I mentioned earlier, is what this track’s all about. Fucking. Cra’.

4. Otis

You already know. “Otis” is not what I expected it to be, nor what I wanted it to be, but in the context of Watch the Throne as a whole? It fits right in, perfectly. Nonetheless, it will most likely get skipped since I’ve already heard it three billion times (so far) – and I’ve only heard the other tracks on the album two billion times (so far). Despite its nonsensical soul aesthetic – which may look good on paper – “Otis” is still one of the weaker tracks on the album, in terms of both sound and artistic merit.

5. Gotta Have It

Lyrically, Jay and ‘Ye sound poised and really hit their stride on this track. However, “Gotta Have It” falls way short from a production standpoint. I expected more from The Neptunes, I really did. The beat doesn’t knock nearly as hard as it should and that eerie, uninspired vocal sample is so snooze-worthy and bland it’d make a nymphomaniac sigh and say “not tonight.” It’s a good thing this is the shortest track on the album!

6. New Day

The chemistry on “New Day” is pure bliss, clicking on all cylinders as Kanye “and the RZA connect.” The Nina Simone sample is perfection. The tempo is just right. Best of all, the beauty of the instrumental isn’t marred by ill-fitted raps. (It’s always a travesty when a great beat is defiled by unworthy penmanship.) Kanye and Jay do this composition justice, with Yeezy unquestionably outshining his Big Brother with his poignant lyrics. The party/radio-geared tracks are fun, sure, but this is the brand of hip hop I value most from Kanye West, ‘cause he usually comes correct with it.

7. That’s My Bitch

When the incomplete version of this track hit the internets a year ago, I was bobbing my head to it. I still am. The beat itself sounds way too muffled for my liking – I prefer something more crisp – but it makes up for that with its undeniably great bounce. Elly Jackson’s presence on the tracks adds a nice touch as well.

8. Welcome to the Jungle

My reaction to this track bares a resemblance to what I experienced in 2009 when The Blueprint 3 dropped. It took me a while to appreciate the Justice-chopping madness of “On to the Next One”, but I finally did after a few spins. “Welcome to the Jungle” is far less innovative as Swizz’s previous joint with Jay, but it possesses a charm to it nonetheless. Regardless, the beat is really too sparse for me to get into, and I’d certainly see myself skipping this track on front-to-back album spins.

9. Who Gon Stop Me

This track begins with the drum box simplicity of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”, just before revealing its true behemoth self. Upon repeated listens, I couldn’t help but pick up on the stark difference between the two emcee’s take on this Flux Pavilion-fueled banger: Kanye sounds like he’s altering his delivery to keep up with the beat. Jay makes the track work for him, commanding his way through like a double-speed pro. No question, Jay absolutely murks the bejeezus out of “Who Gon Stop Me”, navigating through its dubstep pacings and beat switch-ups with high proficiency. Funny enough, as controversial as Kanye is trying to sound on this track, his words kinda fall flat for me.

10. Murder to Excellence

So which do you prefer, “Murder” or “Excellence”? If you hadn’t noticed, “Murder to Excellence” is comprised of two separate tracks (the first produced by Swizz Beats; the latter by S1) which manage to go well together, if not in sound then in content. Kanye casually – though effectively – delivers like-minded messages throughout, addressing black on black crime, the juxtaposition of deaths in Chicago and Iraq, and the quip “ain't nothin’ on the news but the blues/”. #iFuxwit “Murder” more though…

11. Made in America (feat. Frank Ocean)

The trifecta of “Made in America” works quite well, with each emcee providing an autobiographical verse describing their rise to fame and the influences along the way – all supplemented by a stirring performance by Frank Ocean, the neo-D’Angelo. The mere mentions of spiritual figures and political leaders breathe life and light into this phenomenal track. All three artists really give it their all, but it’s the atmospheric soundscape – which adds a nearly dream-like serenity to it all – that really pushes this one to the top.

12. Why I Love You (feat. Mr Hudson)

The cascading blares and triumphant synths on “Why I Love You” offer a climactic, damn near-cinematic feel to this closer track. Sonically, it reminds me of “Beach Chair”, a standout from Jay’s otherwise “meh” “comeback album”, Kingdom Come. Kanye and Mike Dean could’ve stuck with the original Cassius vocals from “I Love You So”, but Mr Hudson was wisely brought in – I never thought I’d be writing this – to take the track to newer, greater heights. The chorus is thrilling – but so are the verses. Ah, the verses. Jay may be a pro at subliminal diss tracks, but he ain’t fooling us with these shots fired. We all know the target(s) he’s aiming at. The wig push-backer got his wig pushed back on this one. It was all good just a decade ago…

13. Illest Motherfucker Alive

Really? I gotta wait three full minutes to hear this track? Hol’ up, lemme move my bowels… “Illest Motherfucker Alive” really steps it up from “Why I Love You” on the cinematic tip, with Jay breezing through, alluding to Pacino and De Niro flicks. That aside, this track wins on the sole merit of Kanye’s Naomi Russell (JILF!) reference. That and the beat. I love those minimalistically perfect keys sprinkled throughout. “I.L.M.” blends in nicely with the orchestral sounds of the apocalyptic “H•A•M”…

14. H•A•M

Been there, done that. #iStillFuxWit this.

15. Primetime

This track has potential but it just goes nowhere. No I.D. provides a pleasant, key-driven soundbed with a quirky vocal chop, but Jay and ‘Ye fail to impress. Nothing more to say about this one, sadly.

16. The Joy

One of my favorite tracks from 2010, if this isn’t evidence enough that Pete Rock and Jay-Z need to collab on a full-length, I don’t know what is!


To help me compose my final thoughts on Watch the Throne, I re-read my review for The Blueprint 3. In my verdict for that album, I complained about Jay-Z sounding out of touch from the common man. That complaint is alive and well in 2011 as it was in 2009. Is it really worth bickering over anymore though? The proverb “time heals all wounds” comes to mind immediately. I suppose I’ve grown to accept Jay-Z’s interstellar supremacy, far removed from the headband-wearing Jigga of a decade past. That era is dead, and I’ve begrudgingly grown accustomed to that. (Somehow it didn’t take me nearly as long to accept Kanye’s similar ascent to omnipotence. I wonder why. Oh yeah, maybe ‘cause he was always an asshole. Ha!) Furthermore, The Blueprint 3 was just that: a Blueprint album. Erroneously, I associated it with the previous two records, released during a simpler time when Roc-A-Fella was still a family and the lyrics hit closer to heart. Again, that era is dead. Gone.

Watch the Throne was, is, the beginning of a new chapter. Despite some early cynicism and Twitter shit-talking, I still walked into this one with an open mind. I'm glad that I did because in spite of the little shoulder devil amping me up to hate this record, I can't. I like it. A lot. Unrivaled, Watch the Throne is a beast of its own and it might just be my favorite record of the year.