1. They Didn’t Phone It In
Anytime Jay-Z enters into a much-hyped collaboration, apathy and disaster are both distinct possibilities. And Lord knows Jay and Kanye West didn’t need to put maximum effort into Watch the Throne. They’re the two most famous rappers alive, they have an intriguing backstory together, and they’re both still creatively viable. They could have slapped their names on Metal Machine Music and it would have sold.
And the two tracks released in advance of the album weren’t filled with promise. “H.A.M.” is personality-free and generic. Meanwhile, “Otis” is fun but “Try A Little Tenderness” does all the heavy lifting. There’s a difference between sampling and just playing an entire song while rapping over it.
Luckily, the full album doesn’t follow suit. Jay-Z and Kanye take chances and they sound fully engaged. Jay, in particular, sounds more energized that he has on his recent solo work, as his verses play with different cadences and rhythms. The background tracks are more interesting than standard beat-and-a-hook modern hip hop, and it’s easy to tell that studio time was devoted to getting these songs to sound cool. Check out opener “No Church in the Wild” for its slinky, slightly sinister vibe.
Meanwhile, “Niggas in Paris” creeps along like something off The Chronic, and few if any songs are unworthy of examination. As Fluxblog posits, the duo’s adventurousness is likely due to Kanye’s influence. Kanye has always been more willing to take chances than Jay-Z, and that spirit of experimentation seems to have won the day on Throne.
It’s too early to say exactly how good Watch the Throne is, but it’s good, and the effort put into its creation shows.
2. That Being Said….
The A&R man said “I don’t hear a single.”
David Simon Cowell and I recently discussed the lack of a dominant summer single for 2011, a massive hit that everyone can agree upon and enjoy as it blares from open windows and passing cars. Watch the Throne seemed like a good bet to contain such a song. It doesn’t.
There may be great songs on the album, but none that are positioned to both rule the charts and appeal to every demographic of music fan. It’s almost as if Jay-Z and Kanye held back any songs with potential breakout status for their next solo efforts. There’s no “Run This Town,” “Power,” or “Jesus Walks” here.
“Lift Off,” with Beyoncé singing the hook, is clearly meant to be the big hit, but the chorus isn’t interesting enough and the verses don’t build enough momentum. It’s not quite there.
3. The Jay-Z/Kanye Dichotomy
Although they’re longtime friends/collaborators/frienemies, the personas of Jay-Z and Kanye West differ greatly.
Of course, the two share similarities beyond their massive financial success and choice of vocation. They both like to rap about all the fancy things they own, and they both carry hefty chips on their shoulders about the wrongs done unto them by imaginary enemies.
But Jay-Z carries himself at a distance from his listeners. He’s too good for us, he knows it, and he doesn’t really care what we think about that as long as we keep buying albums. Jay-Z is utterly in love with himself.
Kanye is a raw nerve. Most of his lyrics and actions display rampant ego, yes, but an ego created and burnished by crushing insecurity.We can never love Kanye enough to satisfy him. He’ll always remember the reaction to the Taylor Swift IncidentTM more than the sales figures, the applause and the fawning reviews.
When Jay-Z raps about his Murciélago, it’s because that’s what he drove to the studio. When Kanye raps about his Murciélago, it’s because he’s frighteningly desperate for us to know how successful and happy he is. There’s a big difference, and that distinction drives the lyrical content of Watch the Thrones. Kanye sounds more manic than ever, pinballing between possession bragging, lady bragging and naked need. For his part, Jay-Z show a little more vulnerability and emotion than he normally does. But he remains a stable planet, providing a gravitational base while Kanye is a moon orbiting unevenly around him and careening through space.
4. Swapping Lines
The album would benefit from even more interplay from the two principals. For the most part, they divide up songs by verses or even full halves. Kanye raps for 45 seconds. Chorus. Jay raps for 45 seconds. They could use some Paul’s Boutique-style back-and-forth, trading lines or even words, interrupting each other, etc. It would sound less like the album had been recorded like The Strokes’ latest — with Julian Casablancas in L.A. and the rest of the band in San Francisco.
5. The Guest Stars Are Kept at a Minimum
As befitting an album featuring the two titans of 21st century rap, there aren’t many verses given away to protegés and pals. Sure, the usual assortment of ladies and Frank Oceans and the like are around to lend their pretty vocals to the hooks and choruses, but other guest spots are strictly limited.
Which is extremely nice, given how many hip hop albums are tainted when superstars give away too much of the running time to lesser lights.