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Album Review: Kanye West and Jay Z's Watch the Throne
The first track on Watch the Throne opens with a bouncy bass line, a tune that brings the corners of your mouth skyward with anticipation. Then, Frank Ocean's soulful voice comes in and lets us know who we're talking about- God's among kings among men. This is a work of art from two of this generation's music icons- Jay Z, whose work has led him to be the most successful recording artist in recent history, and Kanye West, whose antics and feverish lyrics make him a modern day prophet. The only question that remains, especially for fans of one or both artists, is whether or not the album can live up to the enormous hype. The answer is yes, but in a way that you probably couldn't ever imagine.
It's barely been a year since Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy came out, which topped my Top 10 Albums of 2010 list, but it feels just like yesterday; perhaps it's because the album is infinitely replayable, much like most of West's music. Of these two artists, I'm a much bigger fan of Kanye, mostly because I find him much more interesting than Jay Z- both lyrically and psychologically.
On a track by track basis, Watch the Throne measures up to each artist's previous work. The beats here are complex, complimenting the layered lyrics. However, this album really shines when viewed as a cohesive piece of melodrama- two artists at the height of their wealth, fame, and success producing something that's clearly not about the money. The album was given away for free to all fans who pre-ordered tickets to their Fall tour and there aren't many guest verses on the album, no ploys for cheap radio play. In fact, with the exception of Beyonce's hook in 'Lift Off,' there is little radio ready material- something their promoters are likely worried about.
The opening track, 'No Church in the Wild,' is something to behold. Rap music has always attracted megolomaniacs to it's forefront, bringing the cockiest and most self-conscious artists to the stage. Little compared to Kanye's latest, and there are traces of that here with the end of Jay Z's first verse:
Jesus was a carpenter, Yeezy laid beats;
Hova flow the Holy Ghost,get the hell up out your seats, preach.
The second track, 'Lift Off,' opens with gradstanding brass orchestration set to a few iconic NASA phrases. Beyonce's hook is essentially uninteresting, but catchy. The same goes for Ye's and Hov's verses here. 'Niggas in Paris' is equally empty of captivating wordplay, but it's fun as hell to listen to. It's a track made for driving with the windows down. Again, the beat is what's most fun here and these artists showcase their lyrical genius later on.
'Gotta Have It' is where the album really kicks it into high gear, deviating from the typical hip-hop forumla. Rather than have artists spit verses at a time, Ye and Hov trade lyrics on and off, for the most part, throughout the song. It's something you don't hear often and can likely be attributed to the fact that the two always recorded together in the same studio, rather than mail it in like they could have. One of my favorite lines on the track points at the media's constant assault on Kanye; they always take the side of the poor innocent white girl:
Hello, hello, hello, white America, assassinate my character;
Money matrimony, yea they tryna break the marriage up;
Who gon act phony, or who gone try to embarrass ya;
I'mma need a day off, I think I call Ferris up.
'New Day', the fifth track, features fantastic lyrics from Kanye and Jay Z both. The song plays as a letter to a future son, which avoids common tropes by exploring the worry of being bad fathers themselves and mirroring their own fathers rather than be the fathers they dreamed to be as kids. They worry that the wealth and fame they've achieved will lead to them, like their own fathers, being poor parents:
Sorry junior, I already ruined ya
Cause you ain’t even alive, paparazzi pursuin’ ya
Sins of a father make your life ten times harder
I just wanna take ya to a barber
Bondin’ on charters, all the shit that I never did
Teach ya good values so you cherish it
If you needed further proof of Kanye and Jay Z just having fun with this album, look no further than 'That's My Bitch.'
Twisted love story True Romance
Mary Magdalene from a pole dance
Both hooks here are top notch, with Ellie Goulding's being fun and feminine while Justin Vernon's is deep and overflowing with soul. While not as fun, 'Welcome to the Jungle' is immensely personal but not quite up to the level of the other tracks here, especially following such a fun track. Arguably the best Kanye verse on the album makes an appearance on 'Who Gon Stop Me.' Here's a sample:
Ixnay off my dicksnay
That’s Pig Latin, itch-bay
Who gon stop
...heard Yeezy was racist, well, I guess that’s on one basis
I only like green faces
'Murder to Excellence' provides the album's token political verses, with both Kanye and Jay Z lamenting the degree of gang violence, coined here as "black on black murder." There are also various citations to the
violence in inner city America being worse than that of Iraq or Afghanistan and that the media or the government aren't paying attention to it, likely because of the race of the victims.
The best album on the track, 'Made in America,' again features Frank Ocean of OFWGKTA fame. The track is a soulful rendition of family and success, specifically for these two artists. Kanye has long had
affection for his mother whose tragic death a few years back makes this song even more poetic. The track defines America as the struggles of contemporary families rather than the iconic symbols we often use.
The finale track, 'Why I Love You' features GOOD Music's Mr. Hudson in a great fashion, as it's easily one of the better tracks on the album. The hook, a 20x verse from a Cassius track, is a piece you sing
aloud too no matter where you are as each lyric gradually builds to the explosive couplet. The soul is evident here, something, unfortunately absent in the lesser tracks of the album, which demonstrates itself in the stunning last lyric which cites Luke 23:24.
As a whole, the album is an insightful meditiation on success, family, and the future, all the while providing an insight into each artist's current state of mind. They're each recognized as the best of their time and they've taken this opportunity to prove it to us and themselves. It's understated when necessary, bombastic at every opportunity, and will likely earn it's place among the best albums of