Recently, monolithic golden Greek crosses on black posters began popping up around town, announcing the forthcoming release of WATCH THE THRONE. And I awaited, with messianic fervor, the coming of August 8th, so I could hear two kings defend their rightful place at the altar of rap.
I’ve prevented myself from reading reviews so that my mind is not sullied by other critic’s opinions, though I know the world has been abuzz with love for the album. And I gotta say, this is the best shit Jay-Z has put out since… The Black Album? At it’s heart, though, Watch the Throne is a straight-up Kanye effort; each song has his musical tendrils curled all over it. WTT continues the adventuring spirit of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The dirty, dry-as-bone snare and clattering cymbals from Twisted Fantasy are again the dominant percussive sound, and the sneer of Ye’s recent rhymes has persevered well into 2011. Most notably, this album also offers a dizzying variety of samples and sounds that would only come natural to a voraciously omnivorous music consumer like Ye (I’m still stunned by the use of the hipster dupstep FLUX PAVILION sample, as well as the electronic percussion on “Why I Love You” — may as well have been jacked from M83’s “Kim & Jessie”). Last night, my buddy Andrew aptly pointed out that Kanye’s recent output proves he’s like the Borg: he assimilates indiscriminately.
Speaking from my podium as a Kanye scholar, this album provides something no others have previously done: it closes a loop dude started on his first album, providing coherence to a heretofore scattered body of work. He’s cultivated his own variety of mini-genres (the soul sample jam; the 60’s civil rights jangle; the chest thumping ode-to-ego; the inspirational hymn, etc), and my perception of his interests and career up to this point was that he was just going to keep expanding and conquering new genres every time he released a new album. But here he revisits his previous genres: “Lift Off” has the earnest autotune of 808s, and it’s uplifting (lit’rally) mood is something Kanye did best back on College Dropout. “Otis” is obvi the soul jam, and is possibly one of his best; “Murder to Excellence,” an absolute highlight of the album, features the afore mentioned 60s jangle, the bassy piano keys he so favored on Twisted Fantasy, and the chipmunked vocal sample he’s successfully employed all along.
Now for our elderrapsman of the album: Jay-Z goes DEEP on Throne. While Jigga’s done an album inspired by his autobiography and has also written a book, he has rarely been as emotionally forthcoming as he is here. Up to this point, he’s been a great self-mythologizer, reflecting on his rags-to-riches story from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. Kanye, on the other hand, rarely escapes the circuitous perils of navel-gazing, and this seems to have rubbed off on our man in a good way. We have him staring at himself in a mirror, noting that he’s his only enemy in “Welcome to the Jungle.” He also sits in his car, alone, feeling numb in “Why I Love You.” Furthermore, Jay seems to relish his rhymes in a way he rarely does. “Murder to Excellence” features a somewhat indulgent but also very enjoyable slithering alliteration of “s” sounds; Jay even imitates the “chsshh chsshh” of a cologne spray nozzle. On a music level tho, Jay-Z finally is succeeding at sounding cool with synths, something he has not done well on previous sans-Kanye attempts, such as on Blueprint 3’s embarrassingly horrible “Forever Young.”
One of the most satisfying things about this album is, obviously, the interaction between the two rappers. Like poets anxious about their influence, they freely quote their own and the other’s past work. Kanye says: “I’m from the murder capital, where we murder for capital.” Jay sings along with Kanye: “puh-puh-puh-paranoia.” They finish each other’s rhymes. They don’t compete: they meet as equal ballers in the game. From “Niggas in Paris”: “ain’t that just like LeBron James?/ ain’t that just like D. Wade?” They once were enemies, but now they play for the same bloated/egomaniacal team!
Notably, there are no guest appearances on this album from any of rap’s minor princes or would-be heirs. Thank goodness they left Drake to his naked lady sexts and Weezy to his purple haze. It would have been distracting to include these proteges and wannabes. Appropriately, our kings are buffeted by the ghosts of music’s best: a James Brown motif/sample breezes jazzily in and out between a few songs; Brown has four or five additional samples on this album; Nina Simone’s profound “Feeling Good” (“it’s a new day/ it’s a new dawn!”) provides the sentimental backdrop for “New Day,” Otis Redding stomps and grunts in “Otis.” Why play H.O.R.S.E. with the little guys when you can get your picture in the Hall of Fame?
Dudes could have totally phoned some shit in, because that’s what absolute monarchs are allowed to do. But they didn’t. This album isn’t perfect, but if I explained why it ain’t, then we’d all be here till 2012. (It has something to do with Kanye’s newly appalling sexual politics… some other time, though.) Watch the Throne is a completely edifying listening experience for long-time fans, and this is largely because Kanye is an evil genius/Borg-like musical being to whom our resistance is futile!