No Church In The Wild (feat Frank Ocean): 5/5
Lift Off (feat Beyonce): 3/5
Niggas In Paris: 4.5/5
Otis (feat Otis Redding): 4.25/5
Gotta Have It: 4.5/5 (they bounce so well off of each other here)
New Day: 4.5/5
That’s My Bitch: 4.25/5
Welcome To The Jungle: 4/5
Who Gon Stop Me: 3.75/5 Jay got really lazy, lyrically, on the final verse)
Murder To Excellence: 5/5
Made In America (feat Frank Ocean):4.25/5 (Frank Ocean makes this song what it is)
Why I Love You (feat Mr. Hudson): 4/5 (Jay takes time out to shit on his former associates)
We all expected arrogance from the beginning, and the album fulfills that, the album is righteously titled and it fits perfectly. Two of the biggest musicians (not just rappers) of the past decade bar-none collaborate on one LP – one after releasing a mainstream-wise successful album and the other after releasing a very well received album. The Blueprint 3 and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy respectively. On one side we’ve got Kanye West – arguably the biggest ego in the rap game and the most popular rapper currently out today. On the other side we’ve got Jay-Z, Hov, Jigga, whichever self-righteous moniker you prefer, who has the most combined success and longevity of any other rap artist we’ve ever seen. As far as being relevant, selling, and releasing critically acclaimed music, rap has never seen anyone survive (literally and figuratively) as long as Jigga (save for Snoop Dogg, whose music quality has seen a steep decline, and Eminem). Non-arguably two of the biggest names in rap history – both still performing at high levels. Then you add in and combine the brains of rap legends The RZA, Mike Dean, and Pharrell Williams (amongst others) and you’ve got yourself a rap dream team on one of the biggest releases in recent memory.
Pre-release criticism was mainly skepticism on whether or not the album could live up to the hype. Which is a compliment in a way, since you can’t particularly nitpick at Kanye’s latest work or Jay-Z’s award-worthy guest spot in 2010, they’re known for their consistency. People hoped to get an early sneak peek of the album by way of leak and illegal download – but something that will undoubtedly go down in history happened. The album didn’t leak. How could one of the most hyped album in the history of the genre not leak? Eminem’s comeback album “Relapse” leaked, as did his follow-up “Recovery”. Drake’s highly anticipated album “Thank Me Later” leaked nearly a month before its release. Those were all highly sought-after albums (and the sales indicate that) so what did Jay and ‘Ye do to differentiate themselves from that fate? Well, the exclusive deal with iTunes and Best Buy helped, although it angered small store owners. But it worked. Largely due to a lack of a leak, Watch The Throne was the number one album in the world (on iTunes)…before it even dropped. The #1 status was based solely on pre-orders. Word on the street is that, worldwide, it sold over one million digitally based on pre-orders and first-day sale. That is batshit insane, then you factor in the fact that this album was given a sudden release date (only 2-3 weeks before it was scheduled to release) and only enjoyed the wave of it’s single, “Otis”, for about two weeks. No mass marketing. Solely word of mouth. Big name artists should take notes, Kanye and Jay set the precedent. On its first day, Watch The Throne was the #1 album in every country (of any music genre).
How it all went down will go in history in this era ridden with piracy, and labels should and will take note. But lets get to the grit of the album – the actual music.
When Kanye West came into the game (specifically around 1999-2001) he brought a distinct sound – the soul sound. He sampled soul records and put drums and a bassline behind them. A simple concoction, but it worked, and it spurred hits. On his debut, he expanded on this sound and that album too became a hit and is arguably the most impactful rap album of the decade, he shook the game up with his production and subject matter (as well as helping revive Jay-Z’s career in 2001 on The Blueprint). On his latest solo LP, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he brought a certain elegance to rap that we had not seen before. Instead of your simple loop and sample, Kanye took a more classical approach, adding a certain beauty and classical sound to his production. Kanye took that approach again on Watch The Throne and as much as critics love to hate it, neither My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or Watch The Throne would be possible without 808s & Heartbreaks, where Kanye planted the seeds for what would turn out to grow to be two of the biggest releases of this generation. Kanye has seemed to temporarily place his soul sampling that we know him so well for to the side. Instead, he goes big budget and conducts his production like an orchestra to an extent. Lots of live instruments, high-budget, with luxurious and rich sounding sequencing. Throughout Watch The Throne, Kanye gets assistance from some familiar names (RZA and Mike Dean) and some new-school heat as well (Hit-Boy and Frank Ocean) on the keys. The production comes out reminiscent of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Murder To Excellence is a great example of this, as we hear multiple instruments and a familiar sample with help from Swizz Beatz (a notable producer in the game) and S1 (a relatively new producer). The beat change is epic and showcases the versatility that each producer holds. The production is on it’s own pedestal as far as music goes. It’s a musical mesh.
If you’re familiar with Kanye West and Jay-Z, you expect bravado, and lots of it. And while this album does have its share of braggadocio tracks like “Otis” and “Ni**as In Paris”, it is overwhelmingly conscious. The aforementioned “Murder To Excellence” celebrates Black power as does “Made In America”. On “Why I Love You”
Jay-Z departs from his bluster to take a respectful shit on his former Rocafella associates and on “New Day”, we hear Jigga get uncharacteristically emotional. Even the dubstep-inspired “Who Gon Stop Me” is a celebration of their Black-ness in the middle of its altiloquence. Black-ness is a motif in this album, and honestly, it’s surprising as most people came into this album expecting an hour of boasting, and while Kanye and Jay does give us that, they also reach out to their audience (who, primarily, aren’t multi-millionaires to say the least). On “Murder To Excellence” Jay-Z spits,
“What’s up to Will? Shout out to O/
That ain’t enough.. we gonna need a million more/
“Kick in the door” Biggie flow/
I’m all dressed up with nowhere to go/”
Jay-Z is reaching out to his brothers, in essence saying that there needs to be more Black millionaires other than the obvious ones (Oprah and Will Smith). He suggest that they should get it at any cost because even though he has millionaire status, he doesn’t have any Black brothers to celebrate it with (see his “I’m all dressed up with nowhere to go” line in that quote). The subject matter towards the second half of the album was a left hook, to say the least. However the preaching is balanced by the bravado as Kanye and Jay-Z make it clear that they’re the illest in the game by verbally showcasing the riches. You can’t name the album “Watch The Throne” without it. They were sure to make sure that everyone, including their own colleagues (face it, telling someone to “Watch The Throne” is a slap to the face). From my observation, the album was very well-accepted by the fans. Most of the dislike came from actual rap artists (ex 9th Wonder, Joe Budden, Joell Ortiz, etc). Likely a direct result of the title and immediate bravado witnessed on the first half of the album.
As a critic, I try to go into each album with humility and no expectations, but I admit, even I had expectations for this album – and the album lived up to them. At a comfy 12 tracks, this album is incredibly cohesive for it to be split with conscious tracks and tracks filled with bragging. Perhaps it’s because the production blend so well together – even with the number of different producers lending a hand in. Maybe it’s because Jay-Z and Kanye bounce so well off of each other. Who knows, but it sounds right. And that’s all that matters.