Baltimore Sun

On 'H.A.M.': Kanye West and Jay-Z epically drop the ball

UPDATE: Universal Music Group/YouTube doesn't want you to stream the video I posted earlier. Go to Nah Right to listen to it.

Is this what we've been waiting for?

For months, the Dream-Team hype surrounding Kanye West (left, photo by Getty) and Jay-Z's mysterious collaborative album, Watch the Throne, has been steadily building, mostly on its artists' reputations. How could a project of Jay and Kanye songs be anything but great?

Well, judging from the first single "H.A.M." (which debuted a little after midnight Tuesday on Facebook and is short for "Hard As a Motherf-----"), it could be time to temper those expectations. Here's what's wrong with Watch the Throne's first, half-baked offering:

Kanye's lazy verse. West opens the song with short, syncopated couplets that say very little. He cuts himself off in a way that makes the verse sound like a reference for a demo. More troubling is Kanye's seemingly constant lyrical obsession with "white girls" ("And a few white girls, asses flat as s--- / But the head so good / Damn a n---- glad he hit"). Kanye is headed toward a messy territory, using white girls as a symbol of success (which was funnier and more clever on "Gold Digger"). Don't forget about the chorus on "So Appalled" from his last album: "Champagne wishes, 30 white bitches / I mean the s--- is f----- ridiculous"). You can claim it's merely a man's preference for so long before reference after reference becomes a boring, ugly signifier of "I made it!" Remove the white-girl lines and Kanye's verse is still everything that he deftly avoided on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: boring, forgettable and a non-factor. 


Jay-Z can't … keep … up. For one of rap's greatest MCs and a former master of double-time flow, there's something unsettling about Jay's verse. I immediately thought of Michael Jordan in a Wizards jersey – still making jumpers but huffing and puffing harder to get back on defense. Jay's verse is better than Kanye's, but that's not saying much. Jay doesn't bring out his double-time very often now, and you can hear the rusty execution. The gasps of breath are more audible. Jay's effortless cool is missing.

The operatic breakdown. Lex Luger, 19 and one of my favorite producers in the game right now, provides the best part of "H.A.M." in its Armageddon-meets-swag backdrop. But after the two underwhelming verses, the track switches to male and female opera voices, all layered for MAXIMUM EFFECT. The problem is the effect sounds like Michael Bay trying on his auteur hat. Luger's menacing beats don't need epic breakdowns; they're already earth-shattering enough. Not every movie needs to be 3-D and not every Lex Luger production needs Kanye's "can we get much higher?" touch.

Here's what I did like:
Kanye's nod to Eli Porter ("Like Eli, I did it"), the Internet hip-hop sensation.
Jay-Z taking a subliminal shot at Birdman ("I'm like really half a billi, n---- / Really you got Baby money") for claiming Lil Wayne has more money than Hov.
Lex Luger's production (minus the breakdown).
When it was over.