The Throne (Jay-Z & Kanye West)
Watch The Throne
, August 11th, 2011 12:45
When Public Enemy penned the now-classic 'Don't Believe the Hype' for their quintessential sophomore effort It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back in 1988, there were no online music communities to speak of. Hype was something passed through word of mouth at local shows and written about by the few music publications willing to give coverage to hip hop. Even in this now antediluvian world, Chuck D was concerned enough about the powerful influence of hype to use his role as rap's hottest lyricist to warn against it. His crusade worked; Nation of Millions sold well and became one of the most acclaimed hip hop records of all time, the hype machine successfully dismantled by the music itself.
But today's hype machine is the Large Hadron Collider to 1988's cotton gin. The internet has profoundly changed the way that music is produced, promoted, released, and received. It's rare anymore to be able to listen to a major hip hop album for the first time without massive preconceptions regarding its contents. Rarer still does a record with massive hype actually live up to it – just ask Tyler, the Creator. This system has also started working the other way around, impacting how artists present themselves and helping dictate the records they decide to make.
This brings us to Watch the Throne, the long-awaited collaboration by two of hip hop's biggest heavyweights, Jay-Z and Kanye West. Recording as The Throne, the duo has crafted an LP that simultaneously gives the hype machine the finger and builds an even bigger one right next to it. Jigga and Kanye aren't merely rappers; they're consummate businessmen, and Watch the Throne is as much a calculated move to expand each man's empire as it is a relevant creative endeavor. It's been a full year since West first tweeted about the project, and since then the publicity engine has been revving almost nonstop. It wasn't long before the idea of a Jay/Ye collaboration had exceeded any realistic quality level it could possibly achieve.
This hasn't stopped people from liking the album exactly as much as they want to, though. Watch the Throne first became available for download during the worst of the London rioting, and my Twitter feed was split fairly evenly between horrifying reports of torched buildings and effusive praise for what was apparently the best rap record of the year. I wasn't in quite the right mindset to spin the album right away, but the next morning, with Chuck D and Flavor Flav's warning echoing in my brain, I sat down for my first listen with as little bias as I could manage. It's perhaps needless to say that what I heard was, in fact, not the best rap album of 2011.
The biggest problem with Watch the Throne is how rarely it feels like a truly collaborative effort. There's Kanye verses, there's Jay-Z verses, and it feels like there's an invisible wall that keeps them from bleeding together as satisfyingly as they should. Also of interest is the sheer number of guest appearances and producers that are a part of the project. For being constantly flaunted as the collision of two huge rappers, there's no shortage of help from others. Collaborations have become an increasingly crucial part of hip hop, but on an album whose gimmick is based upon one very specific collaboration, too many additional ones can feel a bit like a cheat.
Ironically, the two finest songs on the LP by far are the two that feature Odd Future's Frank Ocean. The moving 'Made in America' provides the album with its most soulful moments, while opening track 'No Church in the Wild' introduces the album with a hypnotic bass line and an Ocean verse which daringly asks 'What's a king to a god?/What's a god to a nonbeliever?' It's a brilliant vocal hook, but it's still perplexing: Why would the long-mythologized Kanye West and Jay-Z LP open with someone else's lines? It's just one example of the album's pronounced identity crisis.
That crisis can be tied to the egos involved but also to the lack of responsibility The Throne has to its audience. Watch the Throne was destined to be a hit regardless of its quality; the personalities involved were simply too big for it to fail. By the time of the release, lead singles 'H-A-M' and 'Otis' had already let on a bit of the album's eclecticism, the former being a straightforward in-your-face embodiment of the most aggressive elements of each rapper's style and the latter a pastiche indebted to, sampling from, and named for legendary soul man Otis Redding. Across two tracks, such variety was refreshing. Across a full album, it feels indicative of a fear of striding boldly in any direction. The problem is that Kanye and Jay almost certainly know this and are unfazed by it.
The Throne's debut will sell incredibly well and place highly on countless year-end lists. What's difficult to stomach is the fact that this would likely be true almost regardless of what it sounded like. The album isn't quite terrible, but it's far from worthy of the accolades it's already drowning in. It's as though critics and fans alike decided that the year's time they sunk into anticipating the record could only be justified by loving it. Hype and arrogance created Watch the Throne and stifled the creative revelation it could have been. It would be nice if that could serve as a kind of lesson for the hip hop world, but somehow that seems unlikely.