Kanye West and Jay-Z are superstars of hip-hop, pop culture icons, two of a very few rappers who have substantially transformed the genre in the past two decades. West launched his career by making beats for Jay. Jay mentored ‘Ye from producer to rapper to, now, fully fledged collaborator. They might seem like the perfect pair to craft an album of their own in the storied tradition of records like, say, Mos Def and Talib Kweli‘s Black Star, or any Outkast LP ever.
Watch The Throne, released a full 10 months after it was announced, has landed hard following West’s critically acclaimed comeback album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and Jay’s blockbuster 2009 offering, The Blueprint 3. At 46 minutes, it runs substantially shorter than both of their previous albums, but it still somehow feels bloated.
Opening track No Church In The Wild opens well enough. Jay begins the album rapping about religion and aligning ‘Ye and himself with the Holy Trinity: “Jesus was a carpenter, Yeezy laid beats, HOVA, flow the Holy Ghost, get the hell up out your seats.” Fifty years ago, this would’ve been The Beatles declaring that they’re more popular than Jesus, but enough rappers have touted their divine lineage (Jay calls himself HOVA, for Christ’s sake) that this comes off as a cheap regurgitation.
Speaking of regurgitations: while listening to this album, be prepared for more self-referential lines than a postmodern novel. Hip-hop has a grand tradition of sampling music, remixing tracks, and quoting great rappers, but with West and Jay entirely on their own here (there is not a single guest spot on the album), their references to each other’s past works quickly enters frat boy backslapping territory. From Otis: “I made Jesus walks, I’m never going to hell”; “Jay is chillin’, ‘Ye is chillin’, What More Can I Say? We killin’ ‘em.” From Murder To Excellence: “All black everything, nigga, you know my fresh coat”; “And I’m from the murder capital, where they murder for capital.”
Zanye (Jay West?) try to create their own universe here. To an extent, it works well – outside of Jay-Z and Kanye albums, you won’t hear anything close to these sounds in mainstream hip-hop. The beat production on most of the tracks is up to Kanye’s perfectionist standards (excepting 808s & Heartbreak, which stands in a kitschy class of its own), with an intoxicating loop of synth stabs and bass hits on No Church In The Wild; a percussive playground (replete with rototom and sleigh bells) featuring fuzzy synths on That’s My Bitch; and the sprawling landscapes of Who Gon Stop Me and Murder To Excellence, each of which worm into at least three distinct feels.
But the album overall is wholly inconsistent, with weak raps and weak productions poking holes through the greatness that’s present. How is it that two of the best rappers around show up for a track like New Day and only spit on less than half the playing time of the track? With lines like “See, I just want him to have an easy life, not like Yeezy life, just want him to be someone people like” (Kanye) and “Promise to never leave him, even if his mamma tweakin’, because my dad left me and I promise, never repeat him” (Jay-Z), the duo uses a central gimmick of imagining their future sons’ lives just so they can rap (unimaginatively) about their own lives.
And Otis, the album’s second single (after HAM, which is quizzically only on the deluxe version of the album), comes off as weak descendant of Gold Digger. West and Jay rap about about all their swagger over a toned-down Otis Redding sample.
It’s clear that Kanye West took creative control over this album – his footprint is on every single beat. Maybe he felt like he had something to prove to his mentor, or maybe he simply can’t work any other way. Whatever it was, Watch The Throne, which was recorded over the course of a year in studios and hotels in Hawaii, Australia, New York, Abu Dhabi and LA, feels all too fractured from the tension of two rappers (and two egos) at the top of their game, trying to get along.