Prehistoric MCs travelled in packs, but modern rappers only trade rhymes with featured guests, never amongst equals. That’s what makes the album-length collaboration Watch the Throne so monumental – Jay-Z and Kanye West, two of hip-hop’s biggest heroes, sharing an unprecedented bill. Their partnership dates back a decade to West’s soul-drenched beats on Jay-Z’s classic The Blueprint, but having each other’s back isn’t the same as sharing a throne.
The pair’s legendary competitive spirit all-but-guaranteed this would be an epic, and Odd Future’s Frank Ocean (crooning very much like Toronto’s own k-os) opens the proceedings accordingly on No Church in the Wild: “What’s a mob to a king?/What’s a king to a god?/What’s a god to a non-believer?”
But wait, what exactly is a mob to a king? Across the pond, jobless youth are burning down London Town. In Syria , hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators are being slaughtered. And, on the very day Watch the Throne dropped, the markets did, too, with the sixth biggest crash in history. And here sit hip-hop’s royals, on their very first song, boasting about “rolling in a Rolls-Royce Corniche” and 5 a.m. threesomes.
Watch the Throne does offer more than the spoils of wealth. The duo’s facility with flow and way with words is how they won their crowns, with Jay’s ice-cool yet oft-breathless rhymes as beautiful as a Michael Jordan dunk, especially against West’s one-two of hyper-emotionalism and snap-back punchlines.
Though nearly every track is a sonic achievement, New Day, crafted by Wu-Tang’s RZA, is the standout, turning Nina Simone’s voice on Feeling Good into that of a sad robot angel as blips and bleeps float like lightning bugs on a hazy summer night, held aloft by gentle guitar reverb and muffled brass breezes. Fittingly, the pair use this gauzy track to rap to their unborn sons, alternating heartfelt moments and hilarious lines (West cracks, “I might even make him be Republican/So everybody know he love white people” referencing his infamous Hurricane Katrina attack on President Bush).
Who Gon Stop Me’s chorus – “This is something like the Holocaust/Millions of our people lost” – belies a brag-rap track they’ve both done a billion times while the lush Made In America namechecks Martin, Malcolm and Jesus before Kanye boasts of getting a million blog hits as they, once again, chronicle their own ascensions.
Only Murder to Excellence reveals the album that could’ve been, as they finally cast their gaze beyond their own thrones to address black-on-black violence – “It’s time for us to stop and re-define black power/41 souls murdered in 50 hours.” But even then they don’t consider how it’s root cause could be the same capitalism they’ve been expounding all album. As they inevitably turn to their own statuses as “the new black elite” they do briefly decry that they “only spot a few blacks the higher I go” before getting back to Gucci shopping.
It’s an ornate gem of an album, and had it come out at a less-intense time these lyrical oversights may have been disguised by the gorgeous music and skillfully woven words. They’ve spent their careers rapping about their careers. This was their chance, because they weren’t all alone on the mic, to rap about more than themselves, to display a kingly concern for their subjects.
Jay-Z & Kanye West
- Watch the Throne