Although the reigning kings of hip hop have everything money can buy and some that it can’t — Grammys aren’t for sale, right? ― Kanye West and Jay-Z display their adamant abstinence from complacency in their collaborative effort Watch the Throne. The twelve-track LP was born from two artists who have conquered the world (of rap, at least) and are left to reflect upon past struggles and ponder future fantasies.
Watch The Throne resembles a mosaic: fragmented volumes of samples, guest artists and producers skirt and dart to find balance in a hodgepodge of A-list music production. Beyonce (Mrs. Z), Otis Redding and The Neptunes are amongst the glitter that adorn the album’s credits, yet Jay-Z and Kanye never release the spotlight, capturing proximate self-portraits with their incisive lyrics. They strip the barricades encasing their egos so, at times, a poignant honesty pierces through the smog of moneytalk as they approach iconic gansta subject matter with a dash of, dare I say it, humility. Don’t get excited, Jay and ‘Ye aren’t playing truth or dare and having heart to hearts, but the intimacy of their rhymes ventures into memories and perhaps even regret.
Watch The Throne’s stand out track, “New Day,” showcases both rappers’ sincere assessment of their life experiences, as they discuss hopes for their hypothetical sons. Kanye talks about his dreams for his child as an idealized antithesis to his own life: “See, I just want ’im to have an easy life, not like Yeezy life / Just want ’im to be someone people like.” While Jay-Z yearns to be the mentor: “Took me 26 years to find my path / My only job is cuttin’ the time in half / So at 13 we’ll have our first drink together / Black bar mitzvahs, mazel tov, mogul talk.” The track is looped to a luxurious, hauntingly elusive remix of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” in recognition of past hardships that have already been triumphed.
Indeed the album boasts a handful of strong, honed singles. The hard-hitting “Welcome to the Jungle” has a beat sick enough to make you bulimic, while the more bittersweet, Sunday morning-nostalgia-tinged “Made in America” mirrors Jay-Z and Kanye’s own struggles with the American Dream (whatever the fuck that means). Jay-Z’s rhymes hits particularly hard in this one, his lyrics brimming with fearless intimacy, “I pledge allegiance to my grandma, / for that banana pudding, our piece of Americana…The streets raised me, pardon my bad manners, / I got my liberty chopping grams up.” The romanticized inconsistency of what it means to be American is symbolized in all the Martin Luther Kings, all the hummers, all the South Parks, but succinctly squished with Kanye’s “this ain’t no fashion show, muthafucka, we live it.”
The album ends on a slightly weak tone, Mike Dean and Kanye produced “Why I Love You.” Its prominent whammy bar use recalls hues of dirty new wave, as if Ian Curtis made a guest appearance from the grave. The track is carried by strong production and a catchy-as-fuck hook — “ooh I love you so, but why I love you I never know” — but the weak lyricism leaves something to be wanted from the closing number.
Watch the Throne is catered to the seasoned Jay-Z and Kanye fan. Despite their sprawling discographies, Jay and ‘Ye both sound hungry on the record, marking them not as complacent kings, but as artists still spitting smart rhymes.