Jay-Z. Kanye West. Kanye West. Jay-Z.
OK, so realistically that’s not how the first meeting between these two modern titans of rap music probably went, but its result is much the same. Kanye West, perhaps the most gifted-but-polarising figure in modern music, and Jay-Z, the self-proclaimed “best rapper alive”, have been dancing around each other for the best part of a decade, but now, finally, they have reached the moment we’ve all long suspected. They’ve made an album together.
It makes a lot of sense, the more you consider this collaboration. Not only is there a pre-existing personal and professional connection between the two moguls, but their lyrical content is undeniably similar in some respects. Whether this is because, having produced five tracks on Jay-Z’s landmark album The Blueprint (including ‘Izzo (H.O.V.A.)’ which would become Jay’s first top-10 single as a lead artist) West simply picked up some ideas from the man he was listening to in the studio, or simply because as a poor kid growing up in Chicago he connected with the experiences of the young Shawn Carter (Jay-Z’s real name), we may never know. Either way, Watch The Throne is without question the biggest rap event of 2011; the contemporary equivalent of Biggie and Tupac recording a record together.
Under the alias The Throne, this duo of epic proportions produce an album suitably awash with decadence. Taking one brief look at the record’s almost offensively bling cover art should tell you that much at least. On a production level, there are also a handful of samples – Otis Redding on ‘Otis’, Nina Simone on ‘New Day’, James Brown on ‘Gotta Have It’, Curtis Mayfield on bonus track ‘The Joy’ – which each cost a small fortune. As if to add to this opulent outlay, the producers, themselves an embarrassingly impressive cavalcade of talent including The Neptunes, Swizz Beatz, RZA and West himself, remix these samples with relish, looping one of Brown’s ecstatic shouts or auto-tuning Nina Simone singing ‘Feeling’ Good’. Saying that Watch The Throne is extravagant is like saying that Motorhead are loud: we all know it already, but until you hear it for yourself it’s scarcely believable.
Opulence also spills into the lyrics themselves. Jay-Z has long been one of the most creative braggers in the business, here dropping more brand names in some sentences than most of us use in a lifetime, while West jokes about his fleet of cars: “They ain’t see me cause I pulled up in my other Benz / Last week I was in my other other Benz” (‘Otis’).
Of course it’s all ridiculous. Of course we realise that these guys have more money than we’ll ever see and are essentially rubbing our noses in it, but, well, it’s still really fun to listen to. In fact, when this incomparably brash combination is simply talking about how great they are, or how many watches they have, or whatever else, Watch The Throne is excellent. ‘Otis’ – having also provided us with an obscenely lavish video (see below) – is a knockout, full of intuitive rhyming and brilliantly conceived boasts: “Photo shoot fresh, looking like wealth / I’m ’bout to call the paparazzi on myself” (Jay-Z).
‘Who Gon Stop Me’ and ‘That’s My Bitch’ follow a similar path, the former an uppercut of a track with a pounding beat, the latter letting the verses glide over head-nodding backing, featuring Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and La Roux’s Elly Jackson on vocal duties.
Yet there’s a totally different side to The Throne’s album. One which, far from the materialistic decadence of many of its tracks, reveals a tortured core to both of our protagonists. We’ve heard these ruminations from both men before – West on tracks like The College Dropout‘s heartbreaking ‘Family Business’, Jay-Z on ‘Song Cry’ from The Blueprint – but combining them reflects a maturity and a depth those who decry rap’s focus on consumerism may miss.
‘Welcome To The Jungle’ sets you up before you’ve even heard it; you’re expecting a luxurious Guns N’ Roses sample and verses about the guns-and-women culture of the jungle, common synonym for the hood. What we get instead is an insistent backbeat and rhymes about struggle, death and depression, featuring perhaps the most courageous and unexpected rhyme on the whole record from Jay-Z:
“I’m losing myself, I’m stuck in the moment
I look in the mirror, my only opponent
Where the fuck is the press? Where the fuck is the press?
Either they know or don’t care I’m fuckin’ depressed”
It’s rare that a rapper, must less rap’s reigning braggart-in-chief, gives such a frank appraisal of his demons; sure it’s laced with the profanity many despise, but the words are delivered with an earnestness and visceral sincerity which hammers them home even harder.
Similarly, the excellent ‘New Day’ is based on a superb central concept, both men rapping to the kids they haven’t had, and opens more doors to the emotional psyches of two of rap’s current kingpins. West prays for strength, so that his son can have “an easy life, not like Yeezy life / Just want him to be someone people like”, and Jay swears not to repeat the sins of the father: “my dad left me and I promise, never repeat him”. The recent announcement that he and wife Beyoncé are expecting a child only increases the poignancy of this promise.
So while we can joke and enjoy the lavishness of what’s on offer, we can also reflect on the tribulations of fame, the nagging self-doubts which both men lay bare here, but which neither often show publicly.
Not every track is spectacular – ‘Lift Off’ is a bit of an electro mess – but there’s so much to enjoy here you don’t want to skip anything; whether it’s an ingenious line, a beautifully-sung melody by Frank Ocean or a piece of astonishing production, nearly every song deserves time and attention. And that’s saying a lot in an era of predictable, disposable rap music. A complex, clever and brilliant album, Watch The Throne matches and exceeds the hype, making it the best rap record of the year so far. Roll on Watch The Throne 2.
Best tracks: ‘Otis’, ‘New Day’, ‘Made In America’, ‘Murder to Excellence’.