Let’s be clear from the outset: Jay-Z and Kanye West are responsible, jointly and independently, for six landmark rap albums, and Watch the Throne isn’t as good as any of them. It’s not designed as a game-changer, nor does it need to be, since the current rap game is one in which these two play exceedingly well—and one that runs mostly by the rules they created. If you can accept that Watch the Throne isn’t a classic by any stretch, you’ll almost inevitably end up liking it. It’s too big to fail. Michael Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr. are name-checked; James Brown, Otis Redding, and Nina Simone all get sampled (and only Nina Simone gets Auto-Tuned); and all-star Beyoncé and rising star Frank Ocean sing the hell out of the first two tracks.
In some sense, this is rap’s answers to Born This Way: a big deal of a record that’s mostly concerned with what a big deal it is, one that requires you to tolerate the artists’ self-mythologizing and put up with their sometimes awkward attempts at experimentation. If you can do that, you’ll be rewarded with an album that, at least 75% of the time, is more than a keepsake for a particular cult of personality. Though the star power of its multiplatinum collaborators is clearly a huge part of the album’s draw, Jay-Z and West spend relatively few tracks with their chests puffed out and their heads high, opting for warmth rather than aloofness, and selling their rhymes with a charisma that’s less a product of A-lister magnetism and more of regular old likeability.
The duo volleys boasts at each other on “Otis” and do call-and-response riffing on “Gotta Have It,” sounding like a pair of hustlers who can’t believe how much they’ve gotten away with. The chemistry between the two friends and self-described sibling rivals is conveyed perfectly on those two tracks, particularly during a Q&A-styled exchange on the latter track that has the two playing off of the annoyingly durable hook from YC’s “Racks.” Though their favorite topic is by far themselves, Jay-Z and West round that winning pair into a trio with “New Day,” where they take turns addressing the sons they expect they’ll eventually raise. While not as thematically rangy as you might hope, each of these tracks does show off a different production aesthetic, moving from raw to hi-tech to reflective.
The album’s powerhouse production turns out to be, as with some of West’s own work, the ultimate ace in the hole. West’s unparalleled knack for dramatic, melodically sophisticated tracks is here channeled away from the Olympian scale of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and toward the more commercial vein of Jay-Z’s recent work—a fact which might owe to West splitting production duties with frequent Jay collaborators like the Neptunes, Swizz Beatz, and Q-Tip. Even so, this is easily the most adventurous record Jay-Z has released to date, as virtually every track eschews the standard verse-hook-repeat format in favor of more dynamic material.
The submerged bassline on “No Church in the Wild” is wickedly cool, as is the midpoint of the song where it drops out and allows Ocean to do some Auto-Tune-assisted runs. “Lift Off” is a study in stylized blockbuster excess, with West’s best fanfare since “Encore” eventually being drowned out by a simulated rocket launch that will sound awesome in your car stereo provided it doesn’t cause your subwoofers to bust your windows. Of course, there’s a difference between avoiding the expected and doing the inspired, but even if Watch the Throne’s leftward shifts occasionally read as willful, the end results remain a full tier above the average rap single.
It’s only in the last third of the album that Watch the Throne truly derails, the apparent cause being Jay-Z and West’s aggressive bid for a knockout finale. Having declared themselves men of the people while tallying the assets that make them anything but, the two end the album with attempts at something neither have ever been especially gifted at: social commentary. To say that “Who Gon Stop Me” is only as bad as the worst Mos Def joints in its ham-fisted rabble-rousing is generous (West yells, by way of introduction, “This is something like the Holocaust!/Millions of our people lost!”), though it doesn’t sink quite to the level of “Made in America.” There, Ocean coos to “sweet baby Jesus” while Jay-Z and West get all teary-eyed about a panoply of figures from the Bible and the cvil rights movement, all of them satisfied, I suppose, that blacks have “made it in America” because these two particular black guys have amassed an audacious amount of wealth and power between them. I entertain the hypothesis that the song is actually an arch parody of the music of the civil rights era, written to underscore the huge gap between the fondness with which men like MLK are spoken of and the ultimate ambivalence of most Americans toward the realization of their ideals in the present. Even “Murder to Excellence,” the best of the album’s “conscious” offerings isn’t much better than what you’d find on the last Lupe Fiasco album.
It’s easy to come down on rappers like Jay-Z and West for dedicating too much of their flow to the eternal rap triumvirate of bling, bitches, and braggadocio, but what do you do when that’s obviously the lyrical matter they work with most convincingly? The truth is, Jay-Z sounds more honest and human talking about his million-dollar wardrobe and rehashing his rags-to-riches story than straining for profound sentiments, while West’s most endearing works have always been self-portraits. There’s some transfer between the two here: Jay-Z’s multiple forays into confessional rap—increasingly common since his candid guest verse on Drake’s “Light Up,” but still rare from the always-collected rap don—show West’s influence, while West’s willingness to loosen his grip on, if not entirely drop, the tortured artist shtick makes it clear just how much he enjoys being around his mentor.
That, and the fact that two notoriously egocentric MCs suddenly turn into street preachers when they’re put in the studio together, suggests the two don’t just bring out the best in each other, they make each other want to be better. Their run of terrific collaborations, from The Blueprint on, shows that their not-uncontentious relationship has often enabled them to do just that, and while Watch the Throne is ultimately a minor entry in their canons, it’s still a terrific snapshot of the friendship that has ended up defining mainstream rap.