“Wasn’t I a good king?” complains Jay-Z near the conclusion of Watch the Throne, his long-awaited full-length collaboration with Kanye West. Who can blame his haughtiness? The natives are restless. Last year was an embarrassment of riches, as Thank Me Later, Teflon Don and, yes, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy redefined the contours of luxury rap. But 2011 is the comedown, ruined by pretenders like Wiz Khalifa’s Rolling Papers and Big Sean’s Finally Famous, which trumpet the virtues of overnight celebrity with none of the sweat, vigor or hard-won respect.
And so we sink our teeth into Watch the Throne, and find the taste rather funny. When two superstars get together, we expect frizzy blasts of energy that wow us on first listen and slowly dissipate in the morning, like a pleasant dream. We’re looking for impact, not resonance, like B.B. King and Eric Clapton’s Riding with the King. We expect incredible verses (or guitar solos) and catchy songs before we return to the drudgery of our pedestrian lives.
But instead, here we get the specter of 2010’s cash crop, and the distant yet still visible peaks of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s past glories. The critics, bloggers and rap fanatics are waiting, too, ready to write virtual term papers on this pay-per-listen event, and turn WTT into a metaphor for the debt crisis, or the yawning income gap between rich and poor, or whatever. If this bloated hour-plus enterprise fails, albeit admirably, it’s from our two heroes’ attempts to fulfill our contradictory expectation for shameless pop carnality and weighty artistic sustenance.
Some of WTT’s least complicated pleasures can be found in the trebly white noise of “Why I Love You” (co-produced with Mike Dean and Anthony Kilhoffer), the pummeling bro-step bass of “Who Gon Stop Me” (Dean and Shama “Sak Pase” Joseph, and built around a sample of Flux Pavilion’s “I Can’t Stop”), a replica of Terminator X’s “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” scratch for “That’s My Bitch” (Q-Tip and Jeff Bhasker), and the street-hop funk keyboards of “Welcome to the Jungle” (vintage Swizz Beatz), despite their tangle of end credits. Then there’s the joyous old-school roundelay of “Otis,” a delightfully messy loop of Otis Redding “got-ta-got-ta-na-na”-ing on “Try a Little Tenderness” that sounds like Kanye chopped it up with an MPC in five minutes. We’d love more of that, so Kanye obliges with “Gotta Have It,” with its staccato sample phrases of James Brown exhorting “What ya need/What-what-what-ya-need?” Yet over a decade deep in his career, Kanye has contracted Dr. Dre syndrome. He leans on a battery of mercenaries to help him finish beats — the Neptunes co-produced “Gotta Have It,” but “Otis” is all his — while relying on his compositional and executive production skills to give the finished product a suitable Kanye glow.
Jay-Z channels others, too. After a plodding, long-in-the-tooth performance on The Blueprint III, the forty-something icon needs fresh blood to energize him. His guest vocals on Teflon Don and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy found him revitalized, even if he depended on well-worn themes of the rich man’s blues and telling the natives to eat cake. His most interesting verses here find him returning to the stump, equating his ascent from petty drug dealer to Brooklyn Nets part-owner and Atlantic Yards developer (or gentrifier, if you side with that controversial land project’s critics) with the holy Civil Rights heroes of yore. “My apple pie was supplied through Arm & Hammer/ Straight out the kitchen/ Shhh, don’t wake Nana,” Jay raps. Sure, why not? Meanwhile, Frank Ocean sweetly serenades Hova on the “Made in America” hook: “Sweet King Martin/ Sweet Queen Coretta … sweet baby Jesus, we made it in America.”
Kanye’s principal contribution to WTT lies behind the engineering boards, and polishing the songs until they glisten with a pop sheen. Lyrically he’s still flushing out his issues over Taylor Swift and South Park’s “gay fish” joke, and his subsequent banishment to the celebrity doghouse. He recently told a U.K. audience that he “gets treated like Hitler,” but sadly, he doesn’t offer anything as richly provocative here. (His soft-porn imagery on “That’s My B*tch” and lines like “My d*ck worth money/ I put Monie in the middle” don’t cut it.) However, he lands a few nice punches: “When we die the money we can’t keep/ But we probably spend it all ’cause the pain ain’t cheap,” he raps on “No Church in the Wild.”
That leaves Jay to configure this Throne as the scepter of the hip-hop Diaspora. As the record’s hour-plus running time unfurls (including four bonus tracks led by the Lex Luger-produced hip-hopera “H.A.M.”), Jay positions himself as a shining exemplar for the black entrepreneur. On “That’s My B*tch,” he shouts out black women, rapping, “Put some colored girls in the MoMA/ Half of these broads ain’t got nothing on Wilona [from Good Times].” He then holds up his wife, Beyoncé Knowles, as a shining example: “You belong in Benzes and clothes crushing the whole building/ You belong with n*ggas who used to be known for dope dealing.” He imagines himself as a benevolent ruler that represents the common folk. He wants to take us on the corporate jet of “N*ggas in Paris”: “I’m supposed to be locked up, too/ If you’d escaped when I escape/ You’d be in Paris gettin’ f*ck*d up, too.”
The craggy, uncut diamonds here — including “Otis,” “Gotta Have It,” and “Who Gon Stop Me” (which doesn’t have a proper chorus) — indicate that Kanye signed up for a cross-continental lark around the Billboard charts, only to have big brother Jay saddle him with a high-concept guilt trip. (Actually, that’s what we thought we would get, too.) Kanye probably doesn’t care as much, cocksure that he has a few Fantasies left in his future. But Jay can’t imagine losing any battles, whether it’s for his soul or a war of words with former minions-turned-frenemies. So he counters Kanye’s Fantasy, and its gloriously unhinged tale of misogyny and spiritual tragedy, with a companion piece about a reformed drug dealer’s moral certitude and a Black Chamber of Commerce perspective that equates racial consciousness with prosperity theology. If only he didn’t have to appease those goddamn barbarians at his door, bellies full and and hungry for more than self-help lessons.
Watch The Throne is a generous offer to them. “I tried to teach n*ggas how to be kings,” says Jay. But as Langston Hughes once wrote, life ain’t no crystal stair.