Crowns aren’t passed on gracefully in Hip-Hop. They’re snatched from the death grips of those desperately trying to hold onto past glory. It’s been a constant story in Hip-Hop’s history since its inception in the late 70s. Every 5-6 years, a new group of emcees, influenced but not beholden to the previous generation, emerge to “push out” and take over from their predecessors. But in the last few years, a new development has emerged. Veteran artists have not only remained, but in several cases have shown they can compete and best their younger counterparts in songwriting and chart performance. No clearer example of this exists than Kanye West and Jay-Z. Both, especially Jay-Z, have been assailed directly and subliminally by young lions seeking the mythical crown. Those challenges have resulted in Watch the Throne, an ambitious albeit flawed project that highlights the strengths and persistent career weaknesses of Jay-Z and Kanye West.
“No Church In the Wild” opens that album with a subtle message of morality being relative. Frank Ocean makes you question perspective immediately with a chorus of questions (“What’s a king to a god/ What’s a god to a non-believer…”). 88 Keys and Mike Dean’s production uses electric guitars and synths to create a simmering intensity that builds but never explodes. Jay reflects on his street past, championing his code as a means of survival. Kanye’s “scripture” is love of a woman and life lessons learned from their taboo sex acts (“…Love Is Cursed By Monogamy/ It’s something the pastor don’t preach”).
“Lift Off” ups the urgency with rolling orchestral arrangements. Beyonce lays the foundation for an epic track with her oft-repeated chorus promise to “take it to the moon” and “stars.” While the collaborative production of Kanye, Mike Dean, Q-Tip and Pharrell is daring, the emcees are still reserved in pushing the throne concept. West sounds more concerned here in mesmerizing the listener with the production’s epic elements than providing any lyrical gems; he shower sings and mumbles through most of his verses. Jay-Z shows better flashes of insight. He chastises the soulless music permeating much of mainstream Hip-Hop (“Shit is making my dick soft…”), and deftly references to Dale Earnhart’s death to allude to his own struggles with artistic vs. financial success (“When you Earnhart as me eventually you hit a wall”).
G.O.O.D. Music in-house producer Hit-Boy takes what’s essentially a Snap music melody loop and fleshes it out with heavy bass and a classic vocal sample courtesy of Mountain’s “Long Red.” Jay-Z navigates the beats with ease, alternating between faster short and moderately paced longer bars. It’s a floss track, meaning Jay is completely at home pulling facts from his extensive portfolio, and even giving a nod to Biggie’s “Mike” lyrics from “Victory” (“I’m liable to go Michael/ Take your pick/ Jackson, Tyson, Jordan, Game 6″). West’s verse, like many on this album, focuses on hedonistic pleasures. Here, it fits the theme. Hit-Boy’s operatic ending beat change, filled with static dissonance, is welcome and makes you somewhat disappointed it wasn’t used earlier or as a completely separate track.
“Gotta Have It” is a strong Neptunes contribution and one of the album’s more conventionally structured Hip-Hop songs. However, because it’s essentially another flossing track in the vein of previous track, the verses and length are kept short (a little over two minutes). The RZA-produced ”New Day” is the duo’s first track to overtly tackle a serious social issue. Both emcees do well with the concept of “open letters” to their unborn sons. It’s the only song devoid of most of the trademark cockiness and hubris prevalent in both emcees. Kanye speaks on some regrets at wifing former strippers, but remains firm on others like his Katrina criticism of George Bush. Jay focuses simply on being there, something he lacked in his own upbringing (“Promise to never him even if his mama tweakin’/ Cause my Dad left me and I promise never repeat him.”) RZA’s somber piano melodies and brass instruments accentuate the content. The only downside is the auto-tuning of the Nina Simone vocal sample, which lends a manufactured feel to the proceedings.
“Murder to Excellence” is another socially conscious track, this time addressed to the wider black community. The message is not preachy. Instead, both emcees paint a vivid picture of the senselessness of black on black crime. Kanye West provides one of the most telling lines of the album when comparing urban death to the Iraqi War death toll (“314 soldiers died in Iraq/ 509 died in Chicago”). Jay stresses the need for more African-Americans in places of power and takes personal responsibility as being one to help break open the doors (“We need a million more”). Jay takes this opportunity to throw a return shot at conspiracy theorists who call him an Illuminati agent, stating his spirituality is found in music (“They say my black card bear the mark of the Beast/ My religion is the beat…”). The children chanting and low bongos give the track the feel of street corner spoken word, no doubt a nod to the recent passing of legend Gil Scott Heron.
“MURDER TO EXCELLENCE”
The “stadium music” tracks that Kanye West has experimented with since Graduation have proven to be greenlights here for Jay-Z to lyrically attack. He does so easily even with the dub step elements on “”Who Gon Stop Me,” literally taking over the last few minutes of track with flow alone. On the closing “Why I Love You,” he adds content in continuing the lyrical evisceration of his former friends and detractors began on tracks like “So Appalled,” “What They Talkin’ About,” and “Thank You.” While Kanye has his own issues of late in that department with Consequence, he’s content to support Jay ala hypeman (“Took care of these nigga’s lawyer fees…Gotta separate from these fuckin’ fakes”). Some of Jay lines show his disappointment, but in the end he absolves himself of any blame in his public splits (“I tried to teach niggas how to be kings/ And all they ever wanted to be was soldiers/ So the love is gone/ Til blood is drawn/ So we no longer wear the same uniform…”). The chorus is akin to an 80s rock power ballad, but these elements don’t detract from the impact of Jay’s words.
The bonus tracks are dubious only for the fact they’re superior to several songs the made the official tracklist. The hidden “Illest Motherfucker Alive” had the best balance of stadium and traditional Hip-Hop sounds. The operatic vocals and other effects give the song an action movie feel. Despite so much going on from a production standpoint, it never gets overwhelming. Jay-Z give his most definitive statement on why he wears the crown. Building on his words from Blueprint 3, he compares his #1 albums to Bill Russell’s 11 NBA rings and cites Beyonce and Rihannna as proof of his dynasty building capabilities. The biggest error of this album is the omission of “Primetime.” No ID provides two elegant piano loops, one smashed with dissonance effects while a vocal loop chimes in the background. Kanye compares himself to a prime Muhammad Ali, and Jay-Z uses witty numerology to break down why he’s better than ever in his 40s (“At 42 be better than 24/ I carried the 4-5, mastered 48 laws/ Still wearing my 23′s they can’t fuck with the boy…”).
Have Kanye West and Jay-Z defended the throne from the young lions of Hip-Hop? Yes and no. Watch the Throne has flashes of brilliance lyrically and production-wise, showing why both have been two of the premier artists in Hip-Hop post-2000. The album is less diverse musically than Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but the streamlined feel gives it a more unified sound, a point that benefitted Jay-Z over the disjointed feel of Blueprint 3. What hurts this project is the evident focus on the production over deeper, cohesive exploration of the “watch the throne” concept. Instead, several tracks are drenched more in hedonism and celebratory materialism than any stimulating content. ”New Day” and “Murder to Excellence” show they are capable of much more work that can truly show the talent gap between them and their supposed throne challengers. Watch the Throne won’t silence all of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s unnamed rivals, but it’ll keep the majority of them at a distance…for now.