BY MATTHEW HENGEVELD Jay-Z is the biggest, baddest, most livin’ largest persona to loom over the skyline of New York City since Sinatra. He went from shooting the shit in BK with Memph Bleek and Jaz-O to dining in Africa with Bono and sharing plane rides with the President of the United States — not bad from a reformed drug dealer from the projects. His wealth exceeds his Mafioso attitude, and he is the only true rapper-turned-businessman in the world of hip-hop. He’s the rapper that every rapper wants to be. Plus, he wifed-up that chick from Destiny’s Child.
After 16 years of floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, Jay-Z seems poised to go down in history as the greatest ever — that is, if Kanye West, his only seriously competition for the throne, doesn’t beat him to it. Watch the Throne is the highest high-profile collaboration album that hip-hop has ever seen. What two rappers have bigger egos, bigger followings or bigger impacts on hip-hop and pop culture than Kanye West and Jay-Z? In addition, Watch the Throne is somewhat of a who’s-who of producers, featuring Q-Tip, Pete Rock, 88-Keys, S1, The Neptunes, The RZA, No I.D., Lex Luger and Swizz Beats. On paper, it has everything.
Before diving into Watch the Throne you should know that the album has about seven good tracks, and a handful of filler. The album was originally slated to be a six or seven track EP, and that’s how it should have stayed. Still, Watch the Throne is thick with goodness and even greatness, so I will focus on what went right with this collaboration. There are parts that will make you shake your head in awkward disgust, but the highs of the album really do make it all worth it.
The album starts with a string of catchy pop-oriented songs with a wild trip-hop/electro vibe that some have taken to calling “prog hip-hop.” Odd Future’s Frank Ocean gets his croon on in “No Church in the Wild,” which will likely be stuck in your head for days. Lyrics are very average, but the production is otherworldly. “Lift Off” and “Niggas In Paris” take a unique stab at vocal repetition, mostly through sampling. It’s a technique that will undoubtedly be copycatted by dozens of B-rate rappers in the coming two years. “Otis” takes me back to Jay-Z’s golden years; I could picture this track being on The Blueprint 2 or The Black Album. A bit safe, for sure, but this album wouldn’t float without a track like “Otis.” “Gotta Have It” pastes together an annoying mess of James Brown samples, but serves up an unforgettable back-and-forth between Jay-Z and Kanye. The Q-Tip produced “That’s My Bitch” may be a year old now, but it remains quintessential Kanye. Oh, and who can’t get with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon’s singing on this track? Wow.
Watch the Throne takes on a new persona in its final stretch. “Who Gon Stop Me,” produced by the mysterious Haitian beatsmith Sak Pase, kicks off as a Kanye West track, but is quickly, and rather violently, hijacked by Jay-Z and a new high-powered electronic instrumentation. This is Jay-Z’s best delivery since “Public Service Announcement” on The Black Album. “Two seats in the 911, No limit on the black card / Told y’all I was gon go HAM, To the ocean with my back yard / No lies in my verses, please pardon all the curses / Shit gotta come up some way (Fuck), when you growing up worthless / Middle finger to my old life, special shout out to my old head / If it wasn’t for your advice, a nigga would have been so dead.” “Murder to Excellence” and “Made in America” show Jigga and Yay doing their best Mos Def and Talib Kweli impression with poignant social commentary, and sometimes painful glimpses of what it’s like to be black in America. The album closing “Why I Love You” is filled with more subliminal shots than you can shake a stick at, particularly at Jay-Z’s original Roc-A-Fella brethren, who have been far less than appreciative of the Jiggaman’s graces.
All in all, this album isn’t nearly as great or as awful as it could have been. The decision to avoid any guest rappers was crucial, and hopefully it will signal the way forward for hip-hop, where all the bet brands have been diluted by endless cameos. I would have included the Pete Rock-produced “The Joy” in the album’s main lineup, rather than tacking it on as a bonus track, but it’s my only major complaint. Kanye took a macro-management approach with the album’s often thrilling production values but ultimately it’s Jay-Z who comes out the winner, more often than not catching lightning in the bottle and resurrecting what would have been a middling collection of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy B-sides without him.