As you two probably saw coming from a mile away, I'm taking a break away from my break to offer my thoughts on what will probably end up being the biggest rap album of the year. Still doesn't mean I'm actually back, though.
So, Watch The Throne, the joint effort from Kanye West and Jay-Z (who refer to themselves as the duo "The Throne" on here) that was promised way back in October of 2010 (back when it was just going to be an EP that featured, among other songs, the Nicki Minaj-assisted "Monster"), finally dropped on iTunes this past Monday. Miraculously, it didn't spring a leak: somehow, their plan to offer a digital download first and physical copies long afterward actually worked, so you should expect other projects to quickly follow suit. All I have to say is, it sure took the fucking record industry long enough to think of that, huh? Although it doesn't really matter, since hackers will always find a way, but I digress.
Watch The Throne is being touted as the collaboration album of the year, in a year that has already seen a couple of stellar entries (Bad Meets Evil's Hell: The Sequel wasn't terrible, and Random Axe, the supergroup made up of Black Milk, Sean Price, and Guilty Simpson, takes it in a walk), but the difference here is that we're supposed to care that this project features both hip hop's biggest star and its biggest asshole. Nobody's contesting Kanye's artistry, and Jay-Z has been at the top of his game for more than a decade now, so clearly these two know what they're doing, and a joint effort from then should be nothing short of mesmerizing, right?
Those of you looking for Jay-Z to rhyme over My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy-type beats will be disappointed right from the start, as The Throne decided to recruit a number of different producers to share in the profits (or to shove the blame upon, in the extremely off chance that this album sells miserably). Although Kanye mans the boards, he cedes his chair to the likes of The Neptunes, The RZA (which had me excited from the jump), Q-Tip, Pete Rock (on one of the bonus tracks), 88 Keys, and motherfucking Swizz Beatz, among others. Nearly every single fucking song on Watch The Throne features multiple producers, which could result in a less cohesive vision, although when it comes to music, that isn't always a bad thing. Anyway, even though there are numerous producers involved with Watch The Throne, the guest list for the vocal booth isn't nearly as long: only R&B diva Beyonce and newbie crooner Frank Ocean represent for the living (Otis Redding and, on the deluxe edition I'll be reviewing, Curtis Mayfield also scored credits, which is impressive for a couple of guys who passed away long ago). There are no other rappers who appear on Watch The Throne, which makes this project damn near refreshing in an otherwise lackluster year for our chosen genre: I was afraid that Lil' Wayne, Drake, or Rick Ross would somehow jump out of the woodwork, which is downright impossible to do when you're listening to an mp3, but whatever.
So the real question is, should you two give a fuck?
1. NO CHURCH IN THE WILD (FEAT. FRANK OCEAN)
Well, the instrumental (mostly credited to 88 Keys) is already better than what I was expecting from Watch The Throne: it is equal parts eerie and moving. The first voice you hear on the project is that of Odd Future crooner Frank Ocean, who sounds okay but not good enough to warrant the crazy amount of buzz that he's been the recipient of as of late: later on, some Auto-Tuned vocals (that I believe belong to The-Dream, who plays a background role on here) that sound absolutely fucking terrible pop up before 'Ye's verse. Jay-Z is technically proficient, but his verse feels empty; Kanye fares much better with one of his typical “this is the life I live and the girl I get to fuck”-type sets, even though it has nothing to do with the alleged theme of the track itself. At least Yeezy isn't actually rapping about boning: that, and the fact that “No Church In The Wild” isn't a rap album intro, are two marks in the “plus” column. The brief instrumental interlude at the end was a nice touch, too.
2. LIFT OFF (FEAT. BEYONCE)
And then we're presented with this horseshit. Have you ever listened to a song more than once simply because you couldn't believe how fucking godawful it was? Or is that something only music critics do? Anyway, “Lift Off” is that fucking godawful. Hov's wifey Beyonce sounds horrible, singing random phrases about being great and fuck off, that's why, with vocals so flat that the only plausible explanation is that Jigga agreed to curb it on his need to start up a family for a few months if she will just record the goddamn hook already. (Apparently Don Jazzy, Mr. Hudson, and Seal (among others) were also roped in to provide vocals. Yes, I said Seal. Mr. Heidi Klum himself. It's a testament to just how fucking baller Jay-Z and Kanye West are that they throw money at A-list talent to sing fucking backup on their songs.) 'Ye's instrumental (co-produced by Pharrell Williams and Q-Tip, programmed by fucking LMFAO, of all people) is an aural mess in need of an intervention, and both of our hosts sound embarrassed to be on the same planet as the beat. If you had lowered expectations about Watch The Throne before, well...
3. N----S IN PARIS
The Throne recruit Hit-Boy, late of Kanye's “Christmas In Harlem” and Pusha T's “My God”, to, apparently, marry a hard instrumental with Tangerine Dream's score from Risky Business, and the results are okay-to-middling. Actually, scratch that previous sentence: “N----s In Paris” sounds like a sonic cousin to KiD CuDi's “The Mood”, except on steroids: while I don't necessarily need to hear a mash-up of the two, I wouldn't kick one out of bed. Both Shawn and Kanye sound distracted by the beat, 'Ye more so, since he has to bob and weave around the Jay-Z sound bite (“Ball so hard”...um, that looks weird when written out like that) that Hit-Boy keeps throwing in his path; this results in some inane bars about how awesome they are, with only a couple of lines combined ever referring to Paris. Jay even takes the time to rip off some more Notorious B.I.G. lyrics (from “Victory”, although, to be fair, it isn't a direct lift). Kanye furthers his obvious obsession with Will Ferrell's IMDB page by inserting two sound bites from the pitiful Blades Of Glory into the track, one at the beginning, and one toward the halfway point. I'd like to think that both Will Ferrell and Jon Heder (his co-star, better known as the title character in Napoleon Dynamite) are both pleased and fucking terrified that they have inadvertently contributed to a Jay-Z and Kanye West rap song with a title that neither man can repeat to his children.
4. OTIS (FEAT. OTIS REDDING)
Alright, I just listened to “Otis” within the context of Watch The Throne, and my opinion is exactly the same as it was before: “Otis” is what it sounds like when two successful rappers are coasting. There are a few funny lines, most of them coming from Kanye's direction, but never before has hearing two rappers brag about how rich they are and how much better they are at living than you are been so goddamn mentally exhausting. Using a large enough chunk of Otis Redding's “Try A Little Tenderness” to warrant giving a deceased artist a co-starring credit (and causing me to immediately think of Jon Cryer every time this song plays) sounds lazy as fuck: had “Otis” not started with its extended intro and instead led directly into Jay's goofy “I invented swag” line (which is then contradicted a few bars later, with a sound bite taken from Hova's earlier “All I Need”, where he brags about having regained his swagger: if he truly invented the fucking concept, how the hell did he lose it?), maybe this would have worked better for me. Maybe. Instead, I found “Otis” to be an attempt by two artists to create a soulful mood out of nothing, and, at least for this track, they fail, and that's coming from a huge Jay-Z stan and Kanye West supporter. This song isn't garbage or anything: it just is.
5. GOTTA HAVE IT
This is a natural extension of “Otis”, in that Jay and Yeezy continue to trade bars, perfecting their back-and-forth braggadocio routine. In that regard, this song works a bit better, as both men roll over the Neptunes beat (don't get excited, only Pharrell Williams had a hand in it) effortlessly, with Shawn Carter's rich ass even managing to sound threatening at the beginning of his second verse (before he brags about “planking on a million”, anyway). The vocal samples laid throughout tread that fine line between tolerable and annoying as balls, though, so you should tread through these waters carefully.
6. NEW DAY
Strangely, this RZA-produced concoction wasn't the first song I gravitated to when I started playing Watch The Throne. Not really sure why that happened: maybe I don't have that much faith in Prince Rakeem anymore? No, that can't be it. But now that I'm listening to Nina Simone's “Feeling Good” vocals being filtered through Auto-Tune (blasphemy, I know), I can't help but feel disappointed with the end result. This is nowhere near that hardcore Wu-Tang shit that RZA promised in an interview with Rolling Stone: instead, this sounds like another one of those social commentary-fueled tracks that the Clan likes to put on every group album (see: “I Can't Go To Sleep”; “A Better Tomorrow”; “Can It Be All So Simple”). However, Jay and (especially) Kanye both deliver exceptional verses dedicated to their not-yet-conceived children who they have already damned because of their fame and their very public lives, so they elevate the track beyond anything it truly deserves. Admit it: when Jay (and Kanye, I guess) said “Me and The RZA connect” for the first time, even though you knew deep in your heart that he was just aping a line from Raekwon's “Incarcerated Scarfaces”, you got a little excited, as this was the first time Jay-Z ever really acknowledged the Wu-Tang Clan's existence after blowing the fuck up (Big Daddy Kane's “Show & Prove” doesn't count).
7. THAT'S MY BITCH (FEAT. ELLY JACKSON)
Well, that was a fucking weird transition from optimism to misogyny. “That's My Bitch” is the same song that leaked to the Interweb shortly after 'Ye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy dropped (except newly mastered, kind of): in all honestly, I'm surprised it still made the final cut due to its age. I'm glad it did, though, since Q-Tip's instrumental (with an assist from 'Ye and Jeff Basker) is both the hottest beat on Watch The Throne thus far and the only real beat that could be classified as true “hip hop” (sampling The Incredible Bongo Band's “Apache” has that effect on me; shit, I wouldn't be surprised to find out down the line that Kamaal snuck in some of Bob James's “Nautilus” as well). I mentioned in a previous post that this track originally sounded incomplete but promising: turns out it was finished (even though the album version is shorter than the leak, all you're missing is an extended instrumental and Kanye repeating the title over and over again), but it still works for me, even though this still seems more like a Kanye West song than a collaboration with Jay-Z, who knocks out his verse and quickly skedaddles. Elly Jackson from La Roux supplies the hook: as the nightclub I frequent plays entirely too many La Roux songs, I've grown fucking sick of her voice, but her work on here (which still has nothing to do with specifying which bitch actually belongs to you) isn't bad. (Connie Mitchell and Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver; apparently Kanye left him locked in the studio after My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was completed) also provide background vocals, but I swear that's Charlie Wilson's voice in the middle of the song; regardless, he didn't get a credit in the liner notes.)
8. WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE (FEAT. SWIZZ BEATZ)
This song is shit. Why Jay-Z and Kanye West feel this unnatural kinship with producer-slash-rapper-slash-jackass Swizz Beatz is beyond me, especially when it was originally reported that the duo had purchased some Madlib beats for Watch The Throne. The music on here is garbage, and Swizzy's verbal contributions should have been put out of their misery. The only mildly interesting aspect of “Welcome To The Jungle” (which could only have been worse if it was a straight-up Guns N' Roses cover) is how Jay and 'Ye share the microphone at first, but then Shawn pushes aside his partner to rap about his alleged depression, like the emo rapper he's never been. So that happened.
9. WHO GON STOP ME
Whenever two big-name talents collaborate on a song, there's always an awkward feeling of competition, even if it's unintentional, since someone has to have the better verse. Well, if I had to choose between Jay-Z's boasts and Kanye West's odd attempts at absurd humor, I'd go with Jay all day. And Shawn destroys Yeezy on “Who Gon Stop Me” (although 'Ye loses points from the jump by comparing the song to he Holocaust without backing up his claims). Over an otherwise uninteresting Sak Pase production that morphs into something batshit crazy about halfway through, Jay-Z shows up the entire new school of rappers following in his footsteps. Too bad this song was only alright.
10. MURDER TO EXCELLENCE
Actually two songs in one, and both halves are really fucking good. The first part, aided by an actual good Swizz beat that had to have been created in error, is another one of Jay and 'Ye's attempts at social commentary, dissecting the horrors of black-on-black crime; the second, S1-produced effort, which kicks in at around the two minute and forty-second mark, is a tribute to excellence, which you may have picked up from the title. Aside from his singing, which was unnecessary but not awful, Kanye West delivers some potent bars that rank among his best ever, while his running buddy is no slouch, turning in two terrific verses (one on each “song”) about two entirely different subjects without missing a beat (and sounding great even when he does veer into The Silence Of The Lambs territory, oddly during the “Excellence” song and not on “Murder”). Nice!
11. MADE IN AMERICA (FEAT. FRANK OCEAN)
An out-of-place attempt from two rich guys trying to appear humble, which Kanye will never be able to rightfully pull off. This kind of track has no real place on an album entitled Watch The Throne. Frank Ocean returns to lend the hook, which has fuck-all to do with the respective verses of our hosts: instead of getting religious or political, they simply reflect on their past lives. It was alright, but it wasn't real. Although they do acknowledge the fact that neither of them would be nearly as successful had they not hailed from the United States, so perhaps I should thank them for granting me this moment of clarity. (See what I did there?)
12. WHY I LOVE YOU (FEAT. MR. HUDSON)
Isn't it cute how Kanye West keeps pushing his artist, Mr. Hudson, onto American audiences as if we'll suddenly give a fuck? At least he sounds alright over this track, which is damn near a Hova solo shot, on which he delivers a message of empathy, feelings of betrayal, and ultimate forgiveness for his enemies over a rock-tinged West instrumental. The motherfucker is mad that certain people who used to be in his employ (*cough* Beanie Sigel *cough*) have the audacity to speak out against him as though he somehow mistreated them (when, in reality, he's a businessman, and since Jay-Z was the only marketable artist on Roc-A-Fella Records (before Kanye entered the picture), it makes sense that he would focus on himself a bit more). Perhaps sensing that getting involved in a rap beef wasn't the best move for him, Kanye barely registers into the vocal portions of this track, mostly acting as Jay's hypeman. Not a terrible way to end things.
The deluxe edition of Watch The Throne, which has got to be the only version anybody even bothered to buy, contains the following four extra tracks.
13. ILLEST MOTHERFUCKER ALIVE
After three minutes of silence (clearly iTunes had no idea if the following four songs were “bonus” tracks or simply deluxe-edition exclusives: I wonder if the physical disc version of Watch The Throne will feature such a long lapse) and another one of those brief instrumental interludes that Kanye has been teasing us with all throughout the project, Southside's beat, which doesn't sound as powerful as the song title would suggest, nay, demand, kicks in, and Kanye West starts pleading his case (sometimes even in slow motion) to the audience. Other than the fact that Jay-Z also appears on here, this sounds like a weak castoff from the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sessions. The title is awesome, sure, but the end result was cut from the regular program for a really good reason. I also found myself appalled at the idea that Hova views Warhol and Basquiat prints “while [he's] peeing”. Moving on...
The first actual single from Watch The Throne has been reassigned to administrative desk duty, mostly because it didn't leave as much of an imprint on our chosen genre as Jay and 'Ye had hoped. I was never a fan to Lex Luger's instrumental: it sounds too bombastic (and headache-inducing, and pretentious as fuck) for a song about going “hard as a motherfucker”. This beat is the aural interpretation of attention-deficit hyperactive disorder. 'Ye's verse is kind of disgusting (why yes, he does rap about having sex on here, why do you ask?), and Jay only barely manages not to drown in the ocean (being the more skilled artist of the two gives him some much-needed leverage). I was never impressed with this mess, and I'm still not. Groan.
No I.D. (of “Dion”, as Hova affectionately refers to Kanye's mentor) lends Watch The Throne its best instrumental, a haunting piano-and-vocal sample-based ditty that brings out the best in both of its collaborators. Neither man says anything on here that is even remotely important, and the chorus is ass, but the instrumental goes a long way toward helping this track ride along the sidewalk without its training wheels. “Primetime” gets me even more hyped for that Common album scheduled for this year that is supposed to feature wall-to-wall No I.D.
16. THE JOY (FEAT. CURTIS MAYFIELD, PETE ROCK, KID CUDI, & CHARLIE WILSON)
I'm actually kind of glad that people now have the opportunity to pay for “The Joy”, one of the freebies Kanye gave away during his G.O.O.D. Friday promotion, if only because that would mean some royalties being thrown at producer Pete Rock and the estate of Curtis Mayfield. His “The Makings Of You”, which is sampled throughout the song, creeps into your mind, so even though “The Joy” doesn't fit the overall mood of what Watch The Throne turned into, it still sounds fucking good today, even though Hova's lone verse makes this song's origin as a West solo effort featuring his guest spot all the more obvious. Odds are pretty good that, if you've read this review this far, you probably already have this song on your hard drive. Well, other than being mastered, it's the exact same song, all the way down to KiD CuDi's bullshit cameo, so take that as you will.
THE LAST WORD: So is Watch The Throne an important album? Probably, depending on your definition of the word. For me, it's better for a rap album to be entertaining, and, aside from several aberrations, this project actually worked out okay enough to warrant a listen or two, although in no way would I ever mark this as a classic, since the awful songs on here really fucking suck. A joint effort from Kanye West and Jay-Z, both of whom I'm a noted fan of, should be an earth-shattering listen, mostly because of 'Ye's artistic tendencies constantly getting the best of him (did the world really need to hear a nine-minute version of “Runaway”?), but, surprisingly, Watch The Throne is a stealth Jay-Z solo album that happens to feature a guest on every single goddamn song. Hova dominates the discussions, dragging his toolbox into the fray in an effort to drill into your head that he is worth fucking millions, and he still comes off as a more down-to-earth (and better) rapper than Yeezy. Just when you think the instrumentals, all of which vary wildly in quality (for each No I.D. or Q-Tip track, you are also forced to contend with a Swizz Beatz or a Lex Luger), are going into My Beautiful Dart Twisted Clusterfuck territory, the track ends, a new one begins, and the world resets itself. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense that Shawn Carter would take the lead on Watch The Throne: he is a living legend (like it or not), so he gets to call the shots. Watch The Throne is a better joint effort that Hova's work with Linkin Park or either of his projects with R. Kelly, since Kanye West is a far more interesting artist than either of those two names, and the fact that they recorded this album in the same studios (no e-mailing verses here) definitely helps, but I ultimately found this shit to be only slightly better than The Blueprint 3 and leagues behind Kanye's last effort. The buildup was nice, and the fact that they outsmarted the bootleggers (at least before the iTunes release date) is commendable, but I've heard better, less uneven albums this year, so I guess you two can stop staring at the throne. Hopefully, though, it will generate enough buzz that other artists elect to collaborate; hip hop needs more of this type of creative endeavor (see again: Random Axe and the non-awful songs on Bad Meets Evil's Hell: The Sequel).