Review: Jay-Z and Kanye West, 'Watch the Throne'

Jay-Z and Kanye West
Watch the Throne
Roc Nation

Rating: 3 stars out of 4

Understanding royalty is always trickier than it seems. From a distance, we watch in awe of the stately presence and lavish lifestyle. But get close enough and we see the scars, the chinks in the armor, the dried tears of what it took to become king.

Watch the Throne, the hotly anticipated collaborative album from Kanye West and Jay-Z that was released on iTunes at 12:01 a.m. Monday, deals with this dichotomy as navigated by two rap stars at once shockingly self-aware and blinded by their riches.

For many fans, Watch the Throne is a hip-hop dream come true: Rap’s top rapper/producer teams up with his mentor and arguably the greatest MC to ever touch a microphone. What could go wrong?

With only a few miscues, not much does, and that alone makes Watch the Throne one of the most engrossing listens of the year. Firing from all possible angles, it’s a dense project from two outspoken artists with a lot on their minds — inner-city poverty and violence, Maison Martin Margiela jackets, their unborn children, Rolexes, Jesus, supermodels — and their mix of wit and candor keeps it from choking on its own grandeur and importance.

There’s an audible hunger to both West and Jay, as if they’re all too aware of the pressures and expectations of such a blockbuster release. The wisest decision of Watch the Throne was the two stars refusing to send songs’ bits and pieces over email to complete separately. The result gives the record a cohesive, handcrafted feel. On “Gotta Have It,” West and Jay rap over a humming Neptunes beat about riding through each other’s hometowns, in Maybachs of course, while namedropping landmark streets bar-for-bar. It’s a simple execution not often utilized in 2011.

The album’s most beautiful moment comes on “New Day.” Both rappers, so famous and so susceptible to scrutiny, have seen the ugly side of the bright lights. West voices his personal regrets through advice to his future son: “And I’ll never let him ever hit the telethon / I mean even if people dyin’ and the world ends.” When he ends his verse with, “And I’ll never let his mom move to L.A. / knowing she couldn’t take the pressure” — a reference to his mother’s death after post-cosmetic surgery complications — it leaves a listener embarrassed by its rawness. Jay can’t help but start with an apology: “Sorry junior, I already ruined ya / Cause you ain’t even alive, paparazzi pursuin’ ya.”

Heavy-lifting songs such as “New Day” and “Murder to Excellence,” a track on black-on-black violence that finds West rapping “No shop class but half the class got a tool,” are shining examples of the duo’s stratospheric capabilities. And it makes the missteps stumble harder, such as their suffocating take on dubstep, “Who Gon Stop Me” (Answer: apparently the overwhelmingly buzzing bass) and the ironically soulless “Otis.” Jay and West are just as obsessed with name-dropping French boutiques and the MoMA as they are with their own places in black history. There are times the Forbes-list approved signifiers become so distracting that it’s difficult to appreciate the finesse of the writing.   

Ultimately, Jay-Z and Kanye West are a tandem too strong to fail. Even when Jay sounds uncomfortable over West’s more bombastic beats or Kanye’s woeful whining begins to grate (he’s still upset about “South Park”?), they use each other as a necessary crutch. Watch the Throne is a sprawling work of two artists dealing with their incredible levels of fame and wealth, without the empty “you can make it, too” moral that too-often rings preposterous. That’s tough for some to swallow, but to accept it makes for a more interesting and honest listen.

A king’s throne is often described as a lonely place, and this is the sound of coming to terms with that enviable but cold reality. Here, loneliness sounds pretty good.

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