kanye-west" class="autolink">Kanye West shouldn’t have started hyping “Watch the Throne” last year. Undoubtedly, the full-length collaboration with Jay-Z wouldn’t have gone unnoticed all these months, but we could have at least overlooked misstep H.A.M. in January; more would have been made of near-perfect “Otis.”
And expectations could have been curbed and formed more precisely. This album is a capsule and not a grand statement, which one would assume from hip-hop’s royalty and from an album that may as well have been named “Watch This Space.” West and Jay-Z are only seven years apart in age, but a generation apart in the history of hip-hop. Hov’s strengths are in his narrative and sparring, Ye’s in his brand of swagger and navigation around a beat/sample. They can interchange, bump off of each other’s language, and that is “Throne’s” strength.
Its divorce is in the potential for a conversation and not just a pair of talking heads. This is a long-form project of almost unprecedented proportions and yet it feels downscaled.
That’s not to say it’s a bad album. It’s quite good, one of the best hip-hop albums to come out this year.
Take for instance “Made in America.” The theme is men and women of color getting their slice of American Pie, whether as a martyr or a trailblazer or an entertainer. But it feels cheapened with Frank Ocean’s repeated refrain “sweet baby Jesus” and Kanye’s digression on blogging, like the song needed catch-phrases to cut Hov’s verse on rags-to-riches for the American Black Man.
But then they take on “black on black murder" on “Murder to Excellence” with some smart observations and personal stories, ‘Ye comparing casualties in Iraq to murders in his hometown in Chicago. The beat switches up from “murder” to “excellence” with something short of trip-hop, Kanye really taking the reins on reigning: “From paroles to hold G’s… We like the promised land of the OG’s / In the past if you picture events like a black tie / What the last thing you expect to see: black guys.”
I love the boom-bap of Q-Tip “That’s My B*tch,” mixed in with the 32-bit synths, the Apache drum sample and La Roux’s sugar over the chorus. The boys – as they should -- have a bit of fun, Jay dropping his usual Vuitton references but also bringing the wife Beyonce
into the fray; West sways like a hard-ass art collector. And speaking of Bey, she tears it up on “Lift Off,” which sits at the traditional Single spot at No. 2 on the set. West concludes -- as we all have -- “I’m such a show-off,” before he reiterates what a lousy singer he is and subsequently owns it, just as he allowed his id out for “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” Both of the guys keep their contributions slow and at a minimum, like a fascinating slow-jam/radio single/intro hybrid.
The actual opener, “No Church in the Wild,” has the album’s best beat. “Tears on the mausoleum floor, blood stains the coliseum doors / lies on the lips of the priests, Thanksgiving disguised as a feast,” Jay ominously raps as a king. Kanye follows-up as a wayward prince. His eyes turn from The Forms and dubs his nightlife his only church, with weed, taxi cabs and “sunglasses and Advil” its sacraments.
The guys bow to the royalty that came before them, including to Redding on “Otis”; Malcolm X, Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King Jr. and Betty Shabazz on “Made In America”; and then there’s standout “New Day,” with Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” chopped and screwed. It’s a return to West’s perennial favorite topic – his struggle with his own fame and pathos – and he and Jay-Z both connect with RZA’s big, sad, melodic bass layer.
They wax philosophy on what they’ll teach their unborn kids, Jay-Z rhyming, “Sorry junior, I already ruined ya / Cause you ain’t even alive, paparazzi pursuin’ ya… Took me 26 years to find my path / My only job is cut the time in half / So at 13 we’ll have our first drink together / Black bar mitzvahs, mazel tov, mogul talk.”
Again, I wish there was more mogul talk between West and Jay-Z -- and even moreso, a battle or two. It’s mostly kept to gentle ribbing and two big-timers rapping he-said-he-also-said. It comes in flashes, like Hova’s triplets on Mr Hudson-starring “Why I Love You” or Ye’s penchant bluster on “Gotta Have It,” but its mostly a supergroup opportunity short of spectacular, shine just shy of gold.