After their collaboration with Rihanna on Jay-Z’s Run This Town from The Blueprint 3 and Jay-Z’s guesting verses on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it seemed fitting that they’d work on a project together. But considering the size of both men’s egos, it wouldn’t have been out of left field to think that a full length collaboration album would be impossible to complete. Jay-Z has tried a few already times with little success, considering he and R. Kelly were the worst of both worlds while together.
But the main reason I believed this album would be released is because no matter how fly Kanye West thinks he is today, he still caters to Jay-Z. Whether it’s in his song Big Brother, or his Taylor Swift incident, which people forget was his way of sticking up for Jay-Z’s wife, Kanye seems to know his role when it comes to dealing with his big bro.
It comes across in their music together. In Watch The Throne, Jay-Z is the more featured artist, while Kanye is like the loyal and trusty sidekick, though he does steal a few of the songs with his knuckle-head style verses. It’s been said that Kanye West’s rhyme skills are barely average, but like many rappers before him who have used their charisma to overcome their lack of mic linguistics, West is totally fine throughout.
Kanye West’s image has changed from backpacker nerd producer to fun and braggadocios rhymer to auto-tune emoter to crazed and insane genius all in the last six or seven years. While some would love to see West go back to digging out old R&B samples and speeding them up like he used to, I actually dig his evolution as an entertainer. There’s an “emotion on his sleeves” feel to his music which overcomes his lack of mechanics.
On the flipside, I feel differently with Jay-Z. Remember when Jay-Z was focused, man (Steve Stout)? He seems unchallenged with rap. The Blueprint 3 seemed to focus on how the young rappers wanted to move him out of the game so they could take his spot, but they simply couldn’t. That theme moved him. What’s left? Jay-Z has a rockstar life. His only real line on Watch The Throne that hints at any problems is, “I’m so f*****’ depressed,” on Welcome To The Jungle. And rather than feel connected with someone who has issues just like regular people, my only thought was, “How?”
Because Jay-Z takes the lead, I felt a little detached to many of the songs. That’s not to say the music isn’t great at times because it is. But the album takes on the embodiment of the title; it’s about two guys who think they’re at the top of their field and they’re telling everyone within earshot that they’re the best.
There are two real exceptions to the rich guy rap. New Day is a humble brag of a song (rich guy problems of spawning off kids in the public eye) behind RZA production (me and the RZA connect), but it’s one of the few times where they at least try to get deep in their message. You might have to be a parent to get inside the song, but both guys rap about their future children and the ground they’ve laid for them. Murder To Excellence covers the issue, of not racial discrimination, but of their race murdering their own. While the album is heavy on ego and self high fives, these two songs go against that grain.
And that’s not to say that brag rap is bad, especially when Jay-Z is doing it, because he’s exceptional at it. In fact, the best song on the entire album, Otis is nothing but Jay-Z and Kanye lyrically stroking themselves and with lines about Kanye’s Benz, his other Benz, and his other, other Benz. There’s no lack of self esteem on this one. While they’d love for you to think that Otis Redding actually performed on this track, they sample Try A Little Tenderness and the beat is actually the star of the song. Everything just fits together perfectly.
Really, my favorite songs are throwbacks to their previous work together. It’s well known that Kanye West really made his name as one of Jay-Z’s producers in the early 00s. Otis, Primetime, Made In America, New Day, The Joy and the outstanding No Church In The Wild all have a very soulful vibe. For my money, the overly soulful beats bring out the best in Jay-Z’s voice and are the most iconic of Kanye’s productions. I know Kanye didn’t produce all the beats on this album, but his fine tooth comb is all over this bad boy.
(Frank Ocean is featured on two songs and he outshines Beyonce and Mr. Hudson, who are the only other guest hook singers on the album.)
Welcome To The Jungle takes me back to 1998. Swizz Beatz leaves Alicia Keys alone for a few minutes to drop his trademark beat. I actually expected DMX to jump on the beat talking about how he was in jail/it was nearly hell/and he didn’t make bail/aarf! It’s also the song where Jay-Z gets most introspective. It’s so much his song that Kanye drops just 8 bars. But again, after bragging so hard about how life is good, this feels synthetic, even though the guy is opening up his chest.
The real problem with this album is that you can’t help but compare it to Kanye’s previous solo effort, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. That album was so rich and exceptionally put together that anything Kanye does from here on out will be compared to that, and simply by association, this album will as well. On its own, Watch The Throne is a really solid piece of work, but it doesn’t measure up.
Jay-Z and Kanye put work into this album. In fact, by making sure they recorded it together, going the electronic music route first which helped stop the leaks, and putting together a big tour to support the album, they are going HAM (hard as a mother******) with this one. It’s good work. It’s just not the classic that they want you to believe it is.
Photo of Kanye and Jay-Z by Mike Barry from Wirral, England (IMG_0690) [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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