A few weeks ago, when Kanye West and Jay-Z released “Otis,” the first single from their new joint album Watch the Throne, the majority of the backlash it faced was over the fact that they dared to rap about their wealth and material possessions in the midst of a recession. These criticisms are shortsighted (people do know how much money these two men have, right? Gotta keep it real). They also miss the point on the very real flaws of this album, without question the most breathlessly anticipated release of 2011. Both Kanye (“Good Life,” “Celebration,” “So Appalled”) and Jay (“Roc Boys,” “Public Service Announcement,” or hell, the entire Blueprint album) have rapped compellingly about their financial situations in the past. If there’s a real flaw with Watch the Throne, it’s how bored they sound mining this familiar lyrical territory on some of these tracks.
On paper, it seems like there’s no way this collaboration could fail, but throughout most of these 12 tracks, I found myself wishing Watch the Throne had been a Kanye solo album. The inconvenient truth here is that Jay-Z’s reputation as an all-time great MC stems almost entirely from three of his 11 albums and a handful of guest appearances. With the exception of 2007’s underrated American Gangster, he’s been on near-constant autopilot since 2003. Not that anyone can blame him — his net worth is well into nine figures and he’s married to Beyoncé; he doesn’t need the rap game to further his career. He released the best hip-hop album of the post-Biggie/Tupac era 10 years ago this September, so he has nothing to prove to anybody artistically. Collaborating on a full-length studio album with Kanye is as much a savvy career move for him from a continued-relevance standpoint as it is a legacy-cementing event for the man he once mentored. There’s nothing resembling a master-and-student dynamic on Watch the Throne — between Kanye’s current critical cache and Jay’s brand value, it’s a wash as to who the bigger draw is here.
And yet, the first voice heard on Watch the Throne is that of Frank Ocean. “No Church in the Wild” and “Made in America” have the Odd Future singer nailing his audition to become hip-hop’s next omnipresent hook man. Kanye, of course, takes a more-is-more approach to production, and his ideas stick about two-thirds of the time. Fans of College Dropout-era Kanye will wet themselves over “New Day” and “Murder to Excellence” — not just for the sped-up-vocal-sample production, but also for the subject matter. On the RZA-produced “New Day,” Jay and Kanye cop to the fact that their future kids’ lives are probably already ruined by their fame (Kanye has what might be the best line on the album: “I might even make him be Republican/So everybody know he loves white people”). “Murder to Excellence,” meanwhile, tackles the problem of black-on-black murder. It’s a rare instance on Watch the Throne where they rap about something that isn’t themselves, and it’s fantastic.
For all the big-budget tricks on this album, though, the two most musically impressive tracks are the two most stripped-down. The opening “No Church in the Wild” rides an ominous, darkly funky bass groove and chilly synths tailor-made for Ocean’s off-kilter crooning. Q-Tip’s production on “That’s My Bitch” is all turntable scratches and ‘80s keyboards (not to mention a killer hook from La Roux’s Elly Jackson), and Kanye and Jay actually push each other as MCs for once. It’s one of the few times that Jay’s verses don’t feel like they were CGI’d in from an online Jay-Z boast generator. And if you can get past the absurdity that is crediting Otis Redding as a featured artist for a run-of-the-mill “Try a Little Tenderness” sample (“My favorite track on College Dropout is ‘Through the Wire’ – you know, the one that features Chaka Kahn?”), “Otis” is actually a pretty good song. Elsewhere, Kanye piles on the horns, strings, synths, vocal samples, and whatever else. It’s all roughly as subtle as the majority of the lyrical content is modest, but does anybody on earth listen to either of these guys expecting restraint? An IMAX production is what we want from them, and that’s exactly what they deliver. And for the most part, it sounds great.
That’s not to say everything works, however. The Beyoncé-assisted “Lift Off” is an unqualified disaster. It’s a plodding, tuneless mess that takes a layup of a Bey hook, does absolutely nothing with it for four minutes, and somehow manages to sound overproduced and unfinished at the same time. “Welcome to the Jungle” features some of their hottest rapping on the album, but it’s absolutely ruined by Swizz Beats’ grating production and contractually-insured ad-libbing (which, by the way, is the single biggest cancer of the last several years of mainstream hip-hop. Forget raising the debt ceiling — Congress should pass a law banning Swizz and Will.i.am from coming within 15 feet of a working microphone on any track they produce for another artist). “Niggas in Paris” is basically a Waka Flocka song with 30 seconds of dubstep stapled to the end. And I still can’t figure out the point of the 15-second horn interlude that runs between several of the songs. It’s almost as if they realized Watch the Throne didn’t have My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s impeccable pacing and cohesion and threw this in to fool listeners into thinking there was something to tie it together. For someone who’s mastered the art of album sequencing to the extent that Kanye has, it feels like a cheap ploy.
But you know what? For all its shortcomings, Watch the Throne is still damn good. Kanye and Jay have a few misfires on the album, but they’re the kind of misfires that come from overambitiousness, not from complacency. For the two most commercially viable rappers of the past decade to care this much about the quality of their art is something nobody could argue is a bad thing.
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