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The all-inclusive, ever-changing, and uncomfortably flexible guide to all things music in the 2010's.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Throne (Kanye West & Jay-Z) - Watch the Throne

It feels trite to say, but Kanye West really has always been a formative figure in popular music because no one has sounded quite like him. His aggressive, ambitious aesthetic is both immediately identifiable and somewhat ahead of its time. Say what you will about his ability to rap (which has gotten better and better over the years), but the guy could never be accused of complacency in the decade or so he’s been making music. Paradoxically, nothing West has ever made could be considered alien to his body of work; every beat, rhyme, rant and tweet a fitting addition to the legend that has become KANYE WEST.

That’s why I imagine many fans were surprised to hear the Lex Luger-produced “H.A.M.” when it came out as the purported first single for Watch The Throne. It had that take-no-prisoners bass, that apocalyptic choral arrangement and that ominous pinwheel sound that introduced the hook. Put simply, it sounded like a Lex Luger track. Not that Kanye West or Jay-Z sounded particularly out of place boasting interminably within that context, but it still felt a little… unsettling. Kanye’s biggest asset as a beatmaker has always been his delight in combining disparate influences to make something only he could. However, for the first time, it sounded like he was rapping on someone else’s track. But his name was still on it.

The most interesting (but not necessarily best) moments on Watch The Throne, the long-awaited collaborative album between Kanye West and Jay-Z, are the ones when the music sounds nothing like something Kanye West would willingly rap over. The chopped James Brown samples of “Gotta Have It” don’t immediately bring to mind any one artist, but its lumbering swagger has never been ‘Ye’s MO. “Niggas In Paris”, with its chiptune-like synths and “B.M.F”-style bass/bomb’s, sounds like the bloated bombast of a Gucci Mane track. Most likely due to its mixed critical response and chartage, “H.A.M.” has been relegated to a bonus track on Watch the Throne, but, for all intents and purposes, the message the track sends is still very much felt on the final product.

This surprisingly new infiltration into the Kanye West cannon could be due to many factors; an increasingly sensationalistic rap music landscape, commercial pressure, a new collaborator. To some extent, all of these affect Watch the Throne, but I would contend that the biggest reason why a lot of the album dodges that subtle Kanye West flavor for more outlandish statements is because of its whole mission statement. I don’t know if you know this, but Kanye West and Jay-Z are kind of a big deal. If you think that the combination of both their enormous dicks on one record will leave room for a “Homecoming” or a “Hey Mama”, or that Jay and Kanye are willing to pull any aesthetic punches in such a meeting of the minds, then you obviously haven’t been in enough fights.

The most unfortunate moment on Watch The Throne may be when ‘Ye and Jay compare themselves to Lebron James and Dwayne Wade. It’s the kind of blissfully ignorant statement that would send the haters of these two guys and everything this album stands for into a tizzy of dramatic irony-inflamed laughter. Watch The Throne, to its credit, places itself on a lofty pedestal; in many ways it is the most ambitious record either of these guys have put their names on. I don’t know what possessed Kanye to start a chorus with, “This is something like the Holocaust / Millions of our people lost,” and finish it with, “’Till I die I’m the fuckin’ boss,” but it possessed him pretty hard. Otis Redding, having died forty-four years prior to this record’s release, is “featured” on a track, as if its inclusion was the final, baffling tenet in the man’s last will and testament. A look at the album booklet reveals that the record’s cover is actually the gaudy gilding of a picture of budding flowers. If Watch The Throne sucked, the metaphors for music scribes could be effortlessly picked like ripe fruit.

Luckily, Watch The Throne is a very good but nowhere near perfect record. Some of those aforementioned un-Kanye-like tracks prove to be the album’s highlights, and the dynamic between these two hip-hop supernovas remains consistent and enthralling throughout. With both engaging beats and head-turning wordplay, Watch the Throne manages to please both those put off by Kanye West and Jay-Z’s superfluous self-aggrandizement and those who just want to see them dick around. If you take anything away from this review, know that Watch The Throne does not, in fact, cave in on itself, although all logistical statistics would indicate otherwise. Instead, the album’s a worthy, fun one-off that solidifies the power of all players involved.

However, you may have noticed that I haven’t really talked about Watch The Throne with respect to Jay-Z yet. There are a few reasons for this. One is that WTT is the first Jay-Z-helmed record that I have ever listened to in-depth, so with what to compare it and within what context to consider it I do not know. Another reason, though, is that Hova has an especially diminished role on the album. Although Kanye West shows great deference to his Def Jam superior throughout (bro-ing out in the “Otis” video, crediting the group as JAY Z & Kanye West on the iTunes version, etc.), Jay never sounds nearly as animated or memorable as his counterpart. This is best exemplified on first track “Church in the Wild”. Over a looped guitar line that sounds like the riff to Foreigner’s “Jukebox Hero”, Jay introduces the record with a dark but competent verse before handing the chorus over to Odd Future’s Frank Ocean. But then, as if the real track was meant to start at its halfway mark, Kanye rips into the beat with unmistakable fervor. “Coke on a black skin make a stripe like a zebra / I call that jungle fever,” he sneers, establishing the decadence of the proceedings in the only way ‘Ye can. When the track’s over, you remember some Kanye lines and maybe Ocean’s understated coo. But, despite sharing a third of the track’s run time, Jay-Z’s work is less memorable than Rick Ross’s eight bars on “Monster”. And, no, it’s not just you.

Jay’s performances on the record aren’t all bland, however. On “Gotta Have It”, he ponies up admirably to the album’s ludicrous aspirations (“Bueller had a Mueller but I switched if for a Mille / ‘Cause I’m richer” is a particularly grin-inducing line), and the man’s depiction of his upbringing in the otherwise dull “Made It In America” is endearing and (cringe) relatable. Unfortunately, though, the worst moments of Watch the Throne belong to him. His grunts in between lines on “Who Gon Stop Me” are very grating, and, much like thinking about blinking, once you realize it’s happening, it’s very difficult to not notice it with future listens. Couple that with tossed-off swag and planking references, and it becomes clear who the weak link of Watch The Throne is. To put it differently, I doubt I’m the only one who saw this album as a follow-up to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as opposed to The Blueprint 3.

It also can’t help that West is absolutely bonkers all over this thing. Where MBDTF felt like the work of a man with everything to prove, Watch The Throne feels like the most victorious of victory laps. I mean, you just don’t beat moments like in “Lift Off” when West goes, “Lift off / Takin’ my coat off (sound of coat wafting in the breeze) / Show all my tattoos / I’m such a showoff,” or in “New Day” when he observes his absurdist politics with, “And I would never let my son have an ego / You be nice to everybody wherever we got / I mean, I might even make him be Republican / So everybody know he love white people,” or when he features a quote from fucking Blades of Glory on “Niggas in Paris”, as if Will Ferrell’s boorish machismo is some batshit foil from a dimension I’ll never understand. Just as this is a different kind of production for a Kanye West album, this is a different kind of Kanye West. Though his memorable lines are not that numerous, it’s hard to imagine an artist who would so effectively take the theme of Watch The Throne to task.

For all this talk of radical changes, though, most of the album will not feel especially strange to those who have already heard music from either of these artists. Those more inclined to the horn-led bluster of “All of the Lights” will enjoy tracks like “Lift Off”. “New Day”, which strains Nina Simone’s “I’m Feeling Good” through Auto-Tune, is reminiscent of MBDTF’s “Devil in a New Dress” and the better moments of 808’s and Heartbreak. Watch the Throne remains consistently good except for the two bragging-absent tracks, “Murder to Excellence” and the aforementioned “Made It In America” (the latter too schmaltzy, the former laying its social commentary on a little too thick for my taste), and the awkwardly gritty “That’s My Bitch” and “Welcome to the Jungle”. Watch The Throne is varied, propulsive and more than a little offensive. Kanye West and Jay-Z prove that they have the might to at least pull off a record like it. Which is great, guys. But if you could just zip up your pants now, that would be even better.