The Throne - Watch the Throne
Record Label: Def Jam Recordings
Release Date: August 8, 2011
Even before being commanded to pay attention, it was hard to ignore the early rumblings of a possible EP collaboration between Kanye West and Jay-Z. While the two have worked together for almost a decade, this level of partnership was something completely new, and a dramatic mirror image of how the two compared so many years ago. West played the part of the up-and-coming producer, first on the track “This Can't Be Life” and then to the overall sound of The Blueprint. Jay, already a household name, saw an impressive evolution in his sound thanks in part to West's soul-inspired sampling and progressive sensibilities. But while Jay's discography slowly declined in quality, West's star rose with an electrifying ferocity. Through agonizing loss, overwhelming success, and various public blunders, West has built a polarizing personality, though slight ignorance does play a part in much of the hate he receives.
On Watch the Throne, we're offered an interesting glimpse at a storied partnership undergoing a bit of shuffling. Though Jay remains a superstar in the world of hip-hop despite a his recent missteps, West is on an entirely different level than when they first worked together. With lyricism to match his historic skills behind the boards, he's risen from the ranks of rookie to become one of the most talented artists in the scene today. His presence is definitely felt on Watch the Throne, overpowering the long list of contributing producers with the typical elements of a Kanye West project. Every track is crisp and clean, flowing from chill to powerful with an alacrity that's become synonymous with his name.
But Kanye West only makes up one half of The Throne, albeit the more stable, comfortable half. Jay-Z, unfortunately, fails to make much of an impression throughout Watch the Throne's twelve tracks. He unmistakeably received a Hell: The Sequel level jump start from West's dominating performance but, unlike Eminem, does little with the hunger he emotes. At his best, he adds a solid layer of depth to songs like “Niggas in Paris” and “That's My Bitch,” playing off West competitively while still maintaining a level of skill that made him famous in the first place. Album spotlight “Why I Love You” is carried by a dramatic, driving chorus from famed R&B artist Mr Hudson and, while featuring one of Jay's weakest verses on the entire album, showcases a surprisingly strong back-and-forth from the two headlining artists towards the end. This small glimpse teases what both artists could accomplish when on the same page, which happens infrequently over the course of the album's forty-six minutes.
It's Jay at his worst that's the most distressing. While many of his verses are disappointing simply because he's capable of much better, some feel as if he's invading a song that would have been more successful as a solo venture from West. Nowhere is this more apparent than “New Day,” a poignant look at how the two artists seek to conduct themselves as fathers in the future. West details his mistakes over touching production from the RZA, leading to Jay's verse about breaking the cycle of his own broken family life. While both artists use impressive lyricism to convey their emotions towards their own fathers and father figures in general, I found it harder to connect with Jay's subtle mentions of his affluence when compared to West's humble regrets for the way he's carried himself in the past.
Luckily, it's hard to focus on Watch the Throne's failings with the sheer amount of spotlights it contains. The aforementioned “Niggas in Paris” showcases the strengths of all the artists involved, layering intricate vocal samples with a pounding beat and club melodies before a short intense segue near the end. The lyrical repetition is far from unique, but provides a supporting framework for the rest of the lyricism that keeps the pace frenetic and interesting. Even without West's assurance, it's apparent he was in his zone when putting this track together, and it shines through every second. The album's second half is held up primarily by the pulsating “Who Gon Stop Me,” a definite bruiser with its liberal use of dubstep and revolving vocal samples. The production is so impressive that it makes up for the track's slow start, both artists' uninspired vocal contributions, and the numbing litany of repeated and overused lyrics.
While other tracks may be more impressive, one stands out as the most cohesive Watch the Throne has to offer. “Murder to Excellence” is split into two distinct entities, aptly named “Murder” and “Excellence.” The former features chorus vocals pulled from Indiggo's “La La La,” a decent foundation for both artists' competent lyricism. Soft bongo percussion and acoustic guitar accompany the vocals at first before building to a clashing cymbal rhythm that's a bit jarring but completely enthralling thanks to Swizz Beatz' dramatic beat shifts and timing changes. The transition from “Murder” to “Excellence” is abrupt but smooth, shifting its focus from an aggressive pace to one that's more fluid. The dichotomy of production ideologies doesn't faze the hip-hop veterans in the least, and both compose themselves as such throughout both halves of this standout track.
Much like his public persona, Kanye West's presence is hard to ignore on Watch the Throne. Every track is, without a doubt, his and his alone. Jay-Z makes appearances ranging from respectable to uninvited, but none amount to more than a decent feature when taking the album in as a whole. Even the up-and-coming crooner Frank Ocean falls flat in his two short features, appearing for two basic choruses before disappearing into the layers of production. What could have been a hip-hop record of unprecedented scale and grandeur is basically only a Kanye West album with numerous Jay-Z accents. But in the long run, that's hardly a bad thing. Going into Watch the Throne with lowered expectations may very well help it in the long run, as the sum of its parts definitely don't live up to its extraordinary potential, but even the worst of Jay-Z and Kanye West's pairings create something special.
it's all about the production/beats with this album. as of late, it's the only thing I really look forward to when hearing about a Kanye production. His lyrics have gotten weaker over time, but his shit always bumps
Excellent, excellent review. I feel like your hip-hop reviews help me strength my opinions of the records in question - not in the way that I lean toward or away from your opinion, just because you know more about the genre so reading about it helps me learn more intricacies that I didn't notice before. I definitely don't listen to this genre like I do others.
I love you, ian, but jay is far from weak. He smacks kanye around on about 4 tracks. New day, illest mfer, welcome to the jungle, and why I love you all rule. Couldn't disagree more with ya there. Kanye def got jay a few times, but he's younger and has a lot more to rap about than a guy who's at the top of the forbes list and has 11 number one albums. Ya dig?
Frank Ocean almost single-handedly makes two songs. Your track listing is also wrong (and had me confused).
1. No Church in the Wild (feat. Frank Ocean)
2. Lift Off (feat. Beyoncé)
3. ****** in Paris
4. Otis (feat. Otis Redding)
5. Gotta Have It
6. New Day
7. That's My Bitch
8. Welcome to the Jungle
9. Who Gon Stop Me
10. Murder to Excellence
11. Made in America (feat. Frank Ocean)
12. Why I Love You (feat. Mr Hudson)
13. Illest Motherfucker Alive
16. The Joy (feat. Curtis Mayfield)
Very god review, I was looking forward to this for quite some time and ultimately it's very hard for an album to reach it's potential when it has so much hype behind it. My favorite track would definitely have to be New Day.
Only thing I disagree with you about is Frank Ocean, cause he was great on the first song. Second song he should have been cut out or down though. And if we're talking about weak Jay verses just look at Lift Off, though that is a weak song in general.