NOTE: The “N” word in my articles is ALWAYS “ninja”.
As Jay-Z’s voice resounds with the bold claim “I invented swag.” as the album’s second single, Otis begins, I am reminded of exactly what the influences of Jay-Z and Kanye West have meant- not just to hip-hop, but to pop. culture over the past decade.
Indeed, while Jay-Z has remained firmly rooted at the top of the charts since before his Blueprint days, Kanye West has used this decade to defined and distinguished himself as a unique personality and force in an industry full of opulent stars.
And that is what sets this duo’s bold project apart from most; it is evident throughout that both men are simultaneously hungry and satisfied, which is (needless to say) a rarity. While most of the super-famous are content providing the masses with what sells, Jay-Z and Kanye West spend an entire album reminding us that they don’t need to sell anymore, because they have enough money to purchase their own country. Instead, they attempt to re-write the rules of the compilation album.
When they aren’t grinning at the commas in their bank accounts, though, and if, as a listener, you are able to stomach the overt glam they flaunt so carelessly, you will see a unique expression and concept emerge from what is (ironically) the boldest hip-hop project since West’s own My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (which Jay-Z heavily featured on).
Whether it be because of West’s musical “eye” and his unique taste in sounds, Jay’s tried and true recepie for passable rap lyrics, the duo’s decision to record in various locations around the world, or simply the buzz created by the two rap moguls’ ability to do these things on one album, Watch the Throne’s tracks each take on a collective piece of musical soul that make for a truly interesting hour of listening.
As the album begins, drums akin to a heart beat set a mood over a raw and unforgiving chorus: “Human beings in a mob / What’s a mob to a king? What’s a king to a God? What’s a God to a Non-Believer, who don’t believe in anything?” before Jay introduces himself in a modern-day self-interpretation before quickly backtracking to Plato, Jesus, and then fast forwarding to “Yeezy” so quickly that his words are barely distinguished before we are hit with another row of chorus and Kanye’s verse, which is introduced over a muffled heartbeat, where West paints dark portrait of indulgence and the vices of megastardom. Still, even when West is re-creating us the darkest corners of his fame, he sips in subtle yet thought provoking one-liners. “No Church in the Wild” is no different, where West describes “two tattoos: one read ‘No apologies’, the other said “Love is cursed by monogomy,” and concludes an introduction that ends with the drumming so muffled that the listener internally muses that the heart beat is his own.
As the pop-inflused “Lift Off” featuring Jay’s wife, Beyonce, begins, I swallow hard. I think Beyonce is beautiful, but on an album where two rap heavyweights are set to spar for fifteen rounds, and as a lover of lyrics, I don’t see much of a need for this sort of track to ruin the momentum.
The up-beat tune alludes to triumph and success, and Beyonce leads us through the first chorus until ‘Ye jumps in, blurting from the distance with an energetic and forgettable rendition of a radio song. Disappointing. More Beyonce, hitting the right notes to make you move your feet. Then West returns to sing a little and warm us up for Jay-Z, who echoes something … success, perhaps? Overall, this track does very little towards the argument the two are trying to make for a “Throne” – this is an example of low level hip-hop, produced for the masses and lacking the creative spark that have defined the two artists over their respective careers, or perhaps highlighting their versitlity. Either way, the pair do not return to this formula for the remainder of the album- a point that this listener is happily highlighting.
As “Ninjas in Paris” begins, Jay-Z reminds us just how much richer than us he is over a hard powerful beat. Interestingly, though, Jay ends his first verse by offering his ability to introduce ‘Ye as his brightest ability as a “baller”. This is likely the first time he has ever acknowledged Ye’s star power as super-ceding his own on a track. Although the two are friends, Jay’s nod to ‘Ye is huge because it creates a free-flowing spirit throughout the entirety of the album, where the two artists are no longer mentor and student, but instead rhyme as equals. When Kanye opens with the immature musings of a woman in his presence, he takes the song in an interesting direction- choosing to demonstrate his wealth through other’s eyes, rather than his own. It is, it seems, West’s belief that the level of his wealth is best understood by the actions of those who are too star struck to remain composed.
As “Otis” begins, the sound of the album makes an abrupt about-face. Where, with “Ninjas in Paris”, the pair had gone ultra-futuristic with an electro-infused beat, Otis is, at its core, a salute to the beginning of black success in American music circles. Otis Redding’s 1932 classic, “Try a Little Tenderness” provides a perfect backdrop and lively chorus to Jay and West, who provide not just a fast track, but one where verses are indistinguishable. The result? Both rappers are lost as they become a single indistinguishable super mogul- their upbringings, self views, and favorite perks of fame, as well as their separate values relating to the black struggle for success in America are packed and packaged so quickly and with so much soul that listeners only catch a few of its lines on first listen. Thankfully, this is a single that gets better with repeated listens.
When “Gotta Have It” abruptly cuts Otis off, Kanye draws us into a slower, more focused track with a moment of “raw recording” before the song drops into fourth gear. Again, the two rap back and forth, in discourse- finishing each other’s sentences and fine tuning each other’s metaphors until you feel like the song is more likely a conversation set to rhyme than a song. It’s that natural, and the effect is enchanting- helped by (what sound like) arabian backdrop vocals.
“New Day” feels like half-time in Watch the Throne, and is the moment both artists take to muse on their fumbling, and their hopes of redemption through their own children; understandably, West’s good intentions attempt to direct a fictional child away from his own mistakes, while Jay-Z regrets the life his child will inevitably have because of his stardom, and vows to “be the daddy that I never had,” – again, both artists play off their own strengths as stars to make the song not only “work”, but a genuine part of themselves.
“That’s my Bitch” is a track born from boasting- it feels (at times) angry, and definitely experimental. West’s rhyme patterns in this song resemble nothing he samples on this album, with 11+ syllable lines and internal rhyme in each line of his verse, he is encouraging a blazing speed with his tempo and the bonding of his words, while the words themselves are essentially a break up- this is probably West’s most impressive literary verse on the album, although lyrically it does not stand up to Jay, who takes a fast paced electro fused track and uses it to praise the beauty of the black female, and more importantly, point out that beautiful black females belong alongside strong black men.
Swizz Beats lends his [lack of] talent to “Welcome to the Jungle”, which is a track of awareness- where Jay exposes his pain and faith, and West lends his own lack of faith, before both men separately expose their unhappiness with the lives they have earned for themselves, and the frustration at knowing “…the mirror [is] my only opponent”, as Jay-Z speaks with a note of disdain amid a verse of despair.
“Who Gon Stop Me” begins with a slow rolling vinyl scratch and then transitions into a hauntingly raw and powerful sound, where the ever-controversial ‘Ye rings a chorus with the bold charge: “This is something like the Holocaust / Millions of our people lost /”. The chorus bothers me because I have been trained to never compare anything with the Holocaust – it was, and remains in my eyes, the most horrendous act of genocide of all-time: incomparable by any standard we have. And my feelings are exactly why West chose the Holocaust. This is a song that is conscious of itself and is desperate to be heard in an environment where it is more likely listeners would turn a blind eye. Jay-Z begins the first verse by repeating “black” seven times, a point for the subject of the song that is not lost when both men acknowledge their success and the lack of patience they have for anyone who isn’t willing to work as hard as they are to achieve it. While “Who Gon Stop Me” falls short of the evolution it alludes to, it does acknowledge the talent and hunger each artist has. Indeed, the song’sown question (who gon’ stop me?) is answered with Jay’s “the only thing to stop me is me.”
“Murder to Excellence”, however, does take the groundwork of “Who Gon Stop Me”‘s chorus and morph it- ‘Ye’s pain is evident when he reminds us of the “murder capitol” as he urges his listener to “stop and re-define black power: forty one souls murdered in fifty hours.” ‘Ye also continues, “I feel the pain in my city wherever I go…Three hundred fourteen soldiers died in Iraq….Five hundred nine died in Chicago.” From there, Jay-Z creates a call to unity: “If you put crabs in a barrell to ensure your survival, you’ll end up pulling down ninjas who just look like you / …I love US.” The highlight of the song, however, is the half-way point, when the song switches from pain to celebration, revealing the artists’ hope for a better tomorrow. Jay-Z re-enforces that the song is a “…celebration of black excellence… / opulence, decadence, tux’s next to the president…” and says “my religion is to be” – a familiar humanitarian echo, that West re-enforces with the clever line “In the past, when you pictured events, like a black tie / What’s the last thing you’d expect to see? Black guys.” reminding us just how far the two have come, and that “every problem you had before this day is now done…Black excellence- truly yours.”
“Made in America” is another soulful rendition of a time before ‘Ye and West, with a slower, more poingnt sound aimed at resurrecting memories. Both artists take this song to share their own unique success stories- ‘Ye of course, leans to his mother for the role she played in everything he achieved, and fast forwards to his present day popularity, and how he instead still gives Jay ‘first pick’. He even alludes to the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments” when he says “…And I’m rappin’ on the beats they were supposed to buy…I guess I’m gettin’ high on my own supply.” Yet, as impressive as West’s struggles and eventual level of success were, it is Jay’s well-documented checkered past, which is the story of the every-man of the ghettos during the 1980’s, that steals attention. With his careful attention to end-stopping and enjambment alongside the beat, he carefully creates an identifiable portrait that is at once his own and accessible to a huge variety of listeners. Jay also sprinkles ‘street justice’ when he describes his drug days, sugar-coating his nights in the kitchen as justifiable because “the scales was lop-sided, i’m just restoring order,”. Additionally, he infuses colloquial words like the greek “yaiya” instead of “Grandma” and the spanish “agua” in place of “water” he showcases the melting pot of language that he grew up embracing, while also acknowledging his present day audience- giving a little something to all of us, who have given so much to him.
“Why I love you” feels like a bitter kick in the face from someone stronger than you- Indeed, as Jay-Z reflects on greedy ‘friends’:
“I try to teach ninjas how to be kings, and all they want to be is soldiers… /
fuck you squares, /
the circle got smaller, the castle got bigger, the balls got taller, /
and truth be told, after all that, ninjas still got love for you.”
the listener feels bitterness, and whats more- a resignation to bare the load of being a “king” alone, if he has to. Meanwhile, West gears up and interjects when Jay doubts his own reign – but otherwise plays the role of a loyal friend, even though ‘Ye is a fellow king.
The album’s encore, which begins with three minutes of silence, and then transitions into “Illest motherfucker alive”, which is one of the stronger songs on the album- it is a lengthy display of mischief and reflection, where West begins by begging for a “slow motion video”. He then snarls at women who expect to get somewhere with just their bodies, laced with arrogance (“Got staples on my dick / Why? / Fuckin’ centerfolds”) and reminders of the depth and degree of wealth that one deals with in the presence of the ‘Throne’. When Jay-Z speaks, he acknowledges his own unparalleled succes (“…Eleven in a row, Bill Russell rings / Michael Jordan swag, / Y’all think Michael Jordan bad? / Ninja, I got five more rings than Michael Jordan had!”) and the lack of competition from other rappers. Jay-Z also uses his heightened taste to provide unusual rap metaphors (except for himself and West, of course) when he says “Basquiat’s, Warhal’s serving as my muses – my house like a museum…” before he concludes that “this is what the ending of Scarface should feel like.” You can almost not help but picture the blimp with the words “THE WORLD IS YOURS.” with the hauntingly gorgeous operaticly influenced beat generating gradeur.
The transition to “Primetime” is sudden, but flawless. Jay again points out his length of success and backtracks towards his origins and his present day strengths as a mogul. West steals the song, though, with his immediately provocative (or should I say “sexy”) introduction:
“Prime-time, bask-in’ in-the-lime, /
Cassius-in his-prime, colorin’ out-of the-line /
‘Cause-they don’t-wan’t nobody that’s colored out-of-a-line /
So I’m late as-a mothafucka’, ‘colored-people-time'”
which highlights a clever, insightful, (and until recently, true) summation of the black struggle- exemplified through ‘Ye’s own self proclamation of himself as a modern Mohammed Ali. ‘Ye then continues with playful re-creations of his ignorant acceptance of aristocracy without ever cheapening the taste of his lifestyle; instead, he manages to simply point to the humor in richness, which remind us how recently removed from the bottom he really is.
“H.A.M.”, the album’s original single is a fast paced and raw track aimed at providing an excess of energy and a reminder of ‘Ye and Jay’s success with a compilation album, and as a two-headed rap monster, able to seduce women, dismiss lesser rappers, overcome impossible odds, keep company with ghouls in order to achieve success by any means, and of course remain atop the throne because of their unrelenting work ethic is matched perfectly by over the top operatic tunes and a gentle piano fade out culminating in a powerful resurgence. Of course, the chorus, which is echoed separately but identically by both men further re-enforces the duo’s commitment to indistinguishably flawless music- and surprisingly, (For a song with a rancid, yet catchy chorus) it works.
The album’s final song, “The Joy” is a slow jam that would be familiar to anyone who heard West’s G.O.O.D. Friday samples- West uses “The Joy” to describe (or justify) his exploits with women, and take another opportunity to show us that he’s good with puns when he says “I never understood Planned Parenthood / Cause I never met nobody [that] planned to be a parent in a hood”. Ultimately, this slow jam will seem tolerable and possibly grow on you, or will turn you off and be a constantly skipped song because of the few memorable lines it contains, all of which belong to West, who echoes Jay-Z’s earlier claim by ending his portion of the album with: “In the mirror, where I see my only enemy / Your life’s cursed? Well mine’s an obscenity.” Similarly, Jay seems to once again follow a repetitive formula, backtracking to his younger days- yet this time, he does it with a slow 70’s flare that manages to escape both the repetitive banter and excessively outrageous claims of some of the other tracks, which is very good if you aren’t a fan of that sort of Jay-Z. He decides to end the album by promising an eternal thirst for “joy”.
“Watch the Throne” is an exercise in expression. Jay-Z and Kanye West push the envelope with their sounds and lyrics, and come out successful most of the time, which is nearly impossible in hip-hop without becoming repetitive. Their talents lend themselves at all the right times, and these two enormously wealthy men have once again earned my $15.
- Words Are My Weapon: The Right Opportunity