Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch The Throne (Def Jam Recordings/Roc-A-Fella/Roc Nation)

August 26, 2011 by  

However you look at it, Jay-Z and Kanye West choosing to debut Watch The Throne at a private listening party in a New York planetarium will probably remain the most apt way to experience this record. Like the vast space that it filled (when they successfully sheltered it from the net leaks that have plagued and pissed off so many musicians before them) this collaborative effort is colossal. It has a wide-reaching arc that sweeps the dust off soul classics and shuffles them in next to sharp hip hop production without even stopping to consider its own audacity. I mean, West pulls a Nina Simone vocal through auto-tune, straight-faced. Throughout the journey on this record, our ears are confronted with the usual grandiose statements you’d expect from two rappers at the top of their games, infused with their own brand of social commentary. Before you roll your eyes at the idea of men who rhyme about Margiela jackets & Rolexes trying to ‘get down with the people’ while commenting on the plight of Black America, give this one a listen. They really do have something to say.

Given the ebbs and flows in pace on this album, it still holds together rather well. Odd Future’s Frank Ocean, who will no doubt see his star rise in the wake of this release, starts proceedings poignantly on “No Church In The Wild”. Over a rumbling and muted guitar refrain he asks “What’s a mob to a king? What’s a king to a god?/ What’s a god to a non-believer?” before we’ve even heard from either star of Watch The Throne. The baton passes straight over to Jay-Z, setting a baroque scene of over-indulgence: think cocaine-taking in an ornate ancient church and you’ve got the right idea. Somehow the two rappers relaying fuzzy details of drug-heavy nights interlinks smoothly with the sinister undertones of paranoia and worry that resurface throughout the record.

The unabashed honesty with which Ye recalls how “last night was mad real” works in conjunction with the self-assured aggression of Niggas In Paris and newest single Otis. Although both tracks approach bravado in different ways, the message remains the same: all the doubters who thought Kanye’d never recover from his public humiliations and Jay top the heights of The Blueprint 3 ought to think again. Humour keeps things light at all the right moments, and even when they reduce Otis Redding to a howling and snarling sample it doesn’t come off sounding like a total misuse of his vocal. Plus, any rappers who can sample Will Ferrell from Blades of Glory and make people laugh out loud in the middle of a song are doing something right.

The more contemplative dimensions to Watch The Throne are hardly few and far between either. I suppose there has to be some kind of balance between writing some of the most quotable boasts of the year and admitting to the pressures of maintaining a flawless image. RZA-produced New Day finds both Jay and Ye using imagined conversations with their unborn sons as a device for self-reflection. It works fairly well, but comes off as slightly contrived at points. They do better airing their views on the state of violence and in-fighting in Black American culture on Who Gon Stop Me and Murder to Excellence. Paying respects to Danroy Henry, a twenty year-old shot by cops in New York, Who Gon Stop Me then suddenly flips into Jay’s synth-laced ode to leaving behind a life of crime and drug dealing; “Middle finger to my old life”, he shouts, in one of his rare emotive vocal deliveries on the album. You get the sense that both men are desperate to see a change in the way African Americans relate to one another, yet aren’t yet sure how to make that change happen. The first step seems to be acknowledging both the truth and media fervour around black-on-black violence before deciding how to tackle it.

Holding together the two facets of revelling in success and trying to rouse greater self-respect in other African Americans is the album?s impeccable production. The list of contributors to the varied sound on Watch The Throne reads like a who?s who of hip hop giants from the last decade. Swizz Beats lays down his signature laidback and polished sheen on Welcome To The Jungle, with the dance-ability that was his trademark in the late 90s. Meanwhile on Gotta Have It, the Neptunes opt for a more minimal sound, playing with a James Brown sample (seriously, the royalties paid out to make this album must have been ridiculous) and delicately layered percussive elements. There?s even a brief foray into what could likely be called rap-dubstep on Who Gon Stop Me, with a guest drop by Mr Hudson. In fact there are so many additional vocal spots on this album, from Seal, Beyonce, Kid Cudi and Bon Iver?s Justin Vernon, that it almost looks like another way for Kanye to show us just how many famous people he knows. Remember All Of The Lights, anyone?

Lofty ambition taken into account, the versatility and sharpness of this album makes it one worth paying attention to. Even if your instinct makes you want to mute the loud voices of two men much richer and more arrogant than you, there is still integrity behind what they?re saying. At least some of the time.