After Kanye West and Jay-Z announced a collaborative album last year, one titled Watch the Throne no less, it seemed there would be a reemergence of the decadent ‘90s rap culture when Puff Daddy and Ma$e would stroll on stage in gaudy, neon jackets like it was nobody’s business. Surprisingly, however, the two rappers have made an album that is relatively low on the empty boasting and high on introspection and their idiosyncratic psyche.
On “Murder to Excellence,” they tackle the divide between violence and poverty and the rich lifestyle in the black community, while the Nina Simone-sampling “New Day” has them wondering about their future families. Rather than sounding saccharine, the song reveals a vulnerability of being a father with the baggage of fame. With his self-deprecation in check, West wryly raps, “I mean I might even make ‘em [my son] be Republican / So everybody know he love white people” as Jay-Z remotely thinks, “And if the day comes I only see him on the weekend / I just pray we was in love on the night that we conceived him.”
This contrast between the two plays throughout the album: West, the precocious, smart-ass kid and Jay-Z, the wise, arrogant father. In these roles, West ends up outshining Jay-Z. He has a knack for witticisms that burst against Jay-Z’s less showy lyrics.
And for better or worse, it’s what makes the album feel, from the music to the themes, like a West album featuring Jay-Z.
Even sonically, West, who shares production credit on the large majority of songs, continues to refine the layered sounds from his last album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Children chant ominously against a clambering, clattering beat on “Murder.” The kickdrum and synths jitter and bang relentlessly on “Why I Love You.” Yet, West and Jay-Z never forget an ear for hooks; Beyonce owns the chorus of “Lift Off” while R&B singer Frank Ocean’s smooth, emotive vocals add a dynamism to a couple of songs. The producers are fearless and audacious, mixing together a variety of sounds into a captivating result so much so that they lift even the most flaccid songs on the album.
Coming together, Jay-Z and West may not have created the perfect album. Their flaws that have always exited — Jay-Z’s lazy writing and West’s lack of musical and lyrical restrain — still appear on Watch the Throne. But there’s still something awe-inspiring about listening to two superstars at the height of power, willing to revel in their weakness and strengths. You can’t help but watch the throne, waiting for the next beat.
Printed on Thursday, August 11, 2011 as: Kanye West, Jay-Z collaborate to produce 'Watch the Throne'