The first fully collaborative album by two of hip-hop's giants, Watch the Throne, the new full-length by Kanye West and Jay-Z, is always enjoyable, often thrilling, yet sometimes head-scratching.
After starting off with "No Church in the Wild," an ominous slow-tempo joint with guest vocals by Frank Ocean of the suddenly omnipresent Odd Future crew, Watch the Throne quickly gets into party mode with "Lift Off," an operatic, big-scale banger with an incredible strings-and-horns based opening, hectic percussion, and an insanely huge chorus by Jay-Z's wife, who quickly emerges as the star of the song despite very decent verses by the featured attractions. Another great track, wisely released as the first single off of the album, is "Otis," a soulful, bluesy burner with help from a deftly sampled Otis Redding track (hence the name). While the lyrics are quickly disposable boast rap, the beat is anything but, and the production is raw and intense, high on bass and long on guitar-and-piano fury.
Still, the highlight of the album might be the 11 minutes that is "That's My B*tch," "Welcome to the Jungle," and "Who Gon Stop Me." Built on a James Brown (who else?) sample and a beat stolen from some group that was apparently very good at banging on the congos, "That's My B*tch" benefits from a tremendous chorus from Bon Iver, a guy who has emerged as an extremely weird Kanye go-to and some beautifully demented funhouse synth. While "Welcome to the Jungle" still may not be as great as the song it borrows its title from, it makes its own mark with gritty production by Swizz Beatz. The producer leans heavily on machine gun drums and a repetitive keyboard line to create what is unquestionably the most stellar, most press-rewind, most head-noddingest beat on the album. The three pronged attack concludes with "Who Gon Stop Me," which soars on brutal drums, more dark synth turned up to 11, and vocals so fuzzy they wouldn't seem out of place on an early Velvet Underground album. Even better, the beat shifts completely around the 2:10 mark, providing the listener with a whole new song that evolves into a showcase for some of Jay-Z's best rhymes. Even if half the time he is talking about how nice his watches are, who cares when the backing track will drive your neighbor to contemplate calling the cops?
However, it isn't all greatness for the pair on Watch the Throne. Some of the tracks they decided to leave on the album (there is a deluxe edition that I could have gotten for three dollars more, but I decided to skip since I'm not into marketing ploys disguised as magnanimous gestures) probably should have been left on the cutting-room floor. "New Day" is a track by Wu-Tang mastermind RZA that is so weak the artists had to name check him in the song several times just to remind you that this is the guy that crafted Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). It's an incredibly spare track for a couple guys who thrive on pomp and circumstance. The threadbare beat allows the lyrics to carry the load, and you are reminded constantly of Kanye's tough life of banging models and flying private jets and Jay-Z's avoiding the paparazzi and under-the-surface Daddy issues. It gets a little boring. "Made in America," meanwhile, must have been a good idea on paper, with our two heroes addressing their roads to success over airy sonics, gentle percussion, and simple keys. However, this sort of soft material is not what I want from these guys. It does nothing for me, and I'm quite shocked H.O.V.A. allowed this to make it on the album.
On an album that is mostly great, a few dud songs are more than acceptable. There's nothing wrong with trying something a little out of the wheelhouse, I guess. However, there are some moments on the album, that just don't make sense. For instance, what is the purpose of the Jon Brion-esque tuba interlude after "No Church in the Wild," "New Day," and (most egregiously since I will not be able to include it on my year-end best-of CD) "Welcome to the Jungle?" Why sample the lousy Will Ferrell skating flick Blades of Glory during the otherwise intriguing "N*ggas in Paris?" Why in God's name is Kanye still whining about the ribbing he took from the folks at South Park as if it was a Christ-like persecution? And finally, why do these guys continue to employ the vocal wizardry that is Mr. Hudson? This white-haired Englishman has found a way to worm his way onto another of these guys' albums, and he does nothing to add to the rather uninspired closer "Why I Love You."
Before I close, a quick word about the lyrics: There has been a lot written about the content of the assorted verses. Many scribes seem to think that the MCs' words veered too far toward material pursuits, that perhaps they should have talked a little less about jetting off to fashion shows, driving around in cars the average American has never heard of, and collecting expensive time pieces, and more about the issues of the day. Seriously? Do people really want to hear 'Ye and Jay-Z addressing the Arab Spring? The ongoing recession? Global warming? Sorry, but I would rather a rapper just talk about what they know. Jay-Z is married to Beyonce and is co-owner of the New Jersey (soon to be Brooklyn) Nets. Kanye is a preening fashionista with a big-time persecution complex. This is what they know. To expect them to dwell on anything else is just silly. Also, they DO talk about the black struggle in America ("Made in America") and their hopes and dreams for their future spawn ("New Day")...in the weakest tracks on the album. No, I'm cool with these guys rhyming about whatever they want as long as it has a sick beat to it. (I also wonder if critics would care as much if they were talking about guns. That seems to be more than acceptable hip-hop subject matter.)
Watch the Throne is marked with the effects of outsized ambition. It contains unqualified successes, comfort-zone avoiders that don't quite get it done, and some moments that will simply make you say "What the F." Still, the highs way outclass the lows. As a whole, it makes for one hell of a mind-blowing listen.