Arriving with a gilded caravan of expectation and promise, Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne does an admirable job of carrying its own luxuriant baggage. Of course, this thing stunts and flexes like a third world narco-dictator flush with bricks of cocaine and warehouses of automatic weapons. So confident of its own powers, the album casually shrugs off the rank conspicuous consumption to offer sincere social commentary. At once opulent and conscious, Watch the Throne is as charismatic as it is unreliable. And the fact of the matter is that Jay and ‘Ye actually come really close to pulling it all off.
If My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a wrenching personal exorcism that turned Kanye West inside out, then Watch the Throne attempts to be the victory lap over his personal demons. The album is just as schizophrenic as its immediate predecessor, trying to wrap its Armani-clad arms around every triumph and every setback in the life of your average hip hop millionaire. Following the tender “New Day” with “That’s My Bitch” exhibits a near-pathological tendency to swerve and veer from topic to topic without the slightest regard for continuity. For every triumphant boast of wealth and influence, the pair bleakly reflect on persistent troubles that undermine the black community: absent fathers, black-on-black crime, institutional racism. When they find that middle ground, as they do on “Murder to Excellence,” a eulogy for the dead that becomes a pep talk about black excellence by appealing to a community’s sense of pride to put aside every beef to overcome every obstacle.
The fundamental disconnect between these two modes is obviously embodied by its two co-captains. Kanye is in full Kanye mode. On “Niggas in Paris,” West brags that “doctors say [he’s] the illest because [he] suffers from realness.” That’s not realness, Mr. West. That’s substance abuse and depression and egomania and unstoppable wealth. There’s nothing real about whatever it is that Kanye suffers from. And, as ever, Jay-Z retains his boardroom acumen, carefully saving a handful of miserable tracks with fine verses. It would all bit a little boring, I guess, except that Kanye is at his absolute best when his balls-to-the-wall hedonism is given an adult playground. And Jay-Z very obviously loves being the coolest guy in the room, which Watch the Thrones allows me to do at every opportunity.
The album’s schizophrenia can be as disorienting as a spinning compass, especially when its filled with brainless radio fodder like “Lift Off” and “Niggas in Paris,” which exist as blank exercises in virtuosic production. However, there are a lot more hits than misses here. The Neptunes-helmed “Gotta Have It” is a smooth throwaway whose minimalistic production and lyricism (“I’m richer and prior to this shit was moving free base” Richard Prior? Get it?), and the lavish “Otis” simply feels like an excuse to rap over one of the most soulful songs ever written. Gaudy show-stoppers like “Who Gon Stop Me” and “Why I Love You” are so self-indulgently decadent that there can be no doubt that this is Kanye’s album. Jay, for all his conservative image micro-management, feels like a long term resident in Kanye’s gilded mansion, rather than a co-owner. But Jay more than holds his own, extending the album’s short verses into a full 16-bar rap on “Who Gon Stop Me” and throwing down a song-saving verse on the otherwise crude “That’s My Bitch.”
In the end, Watch the Throne is a spectacle in the truest sense of the world. Maybe it’s too easy to claim that Watch the Throne is a big deal because there simply are no other referents to this kind of album in hip hop history. Kanye is a once-in-a-generation producer whose polarizing personality has made him a complicated marquee star, and Jay is a once-in-a-generation emcee whose endearing personality has made him a no-brainer marquee star. Considering all the ways that a lavishly opulent project like this could go wrong, Watch the Throne is an unquestionable success. It’s unlikely that we’ll see such a high profile extended collaboration like this for a long time. But when we do, it’s a good thing that ambitious emcees and producers have a template in place.
Rating: 8 / 10