It’s difficult to approach Watch the Throne—-the collaborative super-friends blockbuster from Kanye West and Jay-Z—-while keeping the vitriol in check. This is Brett Favre stunting the development and progress of his home team by not stepping aside and letting Aaron Rodgers forge style and identity. Through its corner-office reign, the pair has kept a vice grip on the culture: charting rap’s creative course, filtering the players, and manipulating back-room deals with Best Buy and iTunes.
This is the spotty tenure as president of Def Jam during which Jay pissed off colleagues like Redman and Joe Budden; the time Jay had Chris Brown booted from a BET awards bill; the anti-Autotune rant that put serious dents in the prospects of the harmless and charming T-Pain; and most recently when the pair jacked buzz from up-and-comers at the annual South By Southwest music conference with an exclusive, Vevo-sponsored clusterfuck gig.
More importantly, Watch the Throne is often noisy, gutless, and absurd: like every time a limping Jay-Z grabs the mic and raps about his American Express Black Card over techno. Lyrics skate by on familiar vocal timbres that rehash classic lines from more fruitful years, like “I’m from the murder capital/where they murder for capital.”
On “Made in America,” Kanye raps about ignoring critics, except that lead single and album teaser “H.A.M.” got nipped from the final tracklisting because of lukewarm reception upon its January release. With a constant ear to the digital streets, Jay and Ye’s ability to create feels compromised, and that’s the album’s most cancerous problem. Rappers often name their album before it exists, and while the practice nets cool and unifying moods (there’s a great moment on The Blueprint III when guest rapper Young Jeezy snarls, “This is that Blueprint III shit!”), here the self-inflicted pressure to forge an important, forward-thinking album from royalty—-that is simultaneously for the peasants—-proves to be a suffocating M.O. We don’t get “I started this gangsta shit and this the motherfucking thanks I get?” but instead “I took care of these niggas’ lawyer fees, and this is how they rewarded me?”
It’s not as easy as playlisting the gems and avoiding the blemishes, because every track has dumbfounding chunks propped up by sweeping highs. On “Who Gon Stop Me,” Kanye compares the rap game to the holocaust, drops Pig Latin, and compares himself to Oprah; Jay-Z brags about wearing all white, with no socks. But then there’s a great one-liner about being racist because you only like green faces.
It’s why that Will Ferrell clip dropped into “Niggas in Paris” actually works: “What does that even mean?” “Nothing it’s just provocative. It gets the people going!”
Justin Vernon—-the women’s studies major and Wisconsin indie-folk hero—-co-writes a song called “That’s My Bitch” on which Jay-Z directly addresses Beyonce’s oglers. Island Def Jam ex-pat Frank Ocean puts aside his public label battles and crushes a hook on Def Jam’s most valuable release of the year. Jay and Kanye compare themselves to LeBron James and Dwayne Wade, instantly retract the boast, and likewise mock Wade and James’ inability to seal the deal with a verse that ends in, “oh wait…”
On “Otis,” we’re to believe our protagonists are back to drop gutter rhymes like it’s 10 years ago. The beat is purposefully entry-level: a D+ sample from an Otis Redding classic, looped over and over like it was made with a pirated copy of Fruityloops in a Howard dorm room circa 2002. But the rapping isn’t vital and the song is a complete failure. I think it’s because Kanye is perpetually starstruck by Jay and this doesn’t allow him to be like, “Yo Jigga, that last take was pretty wack.” Think back to the colossal verses Kanye coaxed from Rick Ross (“Devil in a New Dress”), and Pusha T (“Runaway”) as a producer, and then look at the lazy Jay-Z rhymes he fails to filter:
Ball so hard, this shit crazy
Ball so hard, let’s get faded
Ball so hard, motherfuckers wanna find me
None of this connects, and the result is a rap album you can multitask to at work while the experimental and pretty production takes center stage. Beyond standard figures like Nina Simone and the aforementioned Redding, sticky samples from Cassius, Indiggo, Flux Pavillion, Spooky Tooth, and Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera lay foundations for handfuls of nasty beats.
There are hot moments fans of Jay-Z and Kanye’s discographies will subconsciously consume more than they expect to because, well, this is that Watch the Throne shit. But the sonics should never walk away with the most swagger on a Jay-Z record.