When the concept for Watch the Throne, the epic collaborative album from Kanye West and Jay-Z, was announced in late 2010, blog headlines all over the web were ecstatic with anticipation. Then, six months later, after a lot of waiting and a lot of listening to the prematurely-released, sub-par single (the Lex Luger produced ‘HAM’), Watch the Throne was starting to go the way of Dr. Dre’s long awaited Detox – a theoretically awesome album that will probably never be heard.
Then, several months ago, promotion for Watch the Throne finally arrived – as well as a release date and direct testimony from the epic duo, claiming that the album was near completion. From there, surprisingly, there was only one final delay, and on August 8th, the long-awaited collaboration finally hit the shelves.
Also surprisingly, the album made it all the way to its drop date without leaking, creating a dramatic, midnight on Sunday release, upon which the internet was flooded with a flurry of “WTT” hash-tags and trending topics. The album was finally in the ears of millions of listeners, and it became clear that the often-badmouthed, so called half-assed pipe dream, was nothing of the sort, and that West and Carter were not wasting any time in proving so.
West, who has transformed drastically as a lyricist over the years, delivers a remarkable emotional performance on the album, challenging the prevalent topics of his life like never before (not to mention frequently out-rapping his mentor, Carter). His impressive lyricism is best displayed (perhaps strategically) on the first, and arguably the best song on the album, ‘No Church’, where Kanye makes his new, less self-absorbed but more reckless outlook very clear – frequently referencing drug use and polygamy amidst his usually-clever braggadocio (“Coke on her black skin makes her striped like a zebra – I call that jungle fever”). His strong opening verse sets the tone for the entire album – and from top to bottom, he does not relent.
In addition to his lyricism, sample-genius West proves his royalty once again, borrowing both obscure and progressive samples throughout the album without losing his signature, heavy sound. The samples really take the leading role in ‘Murder to Excellence’, where smooth acoustic guitar and choral vocals keep the atmosphere alive amongst a death-themed anthem, and ‘Who Gon Stop Me’, where Flux Pavilion’s grimy dub step composition is converted seamlessly to a hip-hop masterpiece with an extreme twist. And like many past works of both West and Jay-Z, the album features only a few, well-chosen guest appearances.
Both Beyonce and British pop singer Mr. Hudson lend powerful vocals on the respective choruses of “Liftoff” and “Why I Love You”, but 23-year-old singer/songwriter Frank Ocean steals the show on both “No Church” and “Made In America”.
Ocean (the sole vocalist amongst shock-rap crew Odd Future) has enjoyed success as a songwriter in past years, working with names like Justin Beiber, Beyonce, and John Legend, but after releasing his first solo mixtape, Nostalgia/Ultra, in Feb 2011, he has broken into the spotlight as an artist as well. Even further, it is rumored that an appearance on Jay-Z’s upcoming solo album is in the works, as well as songs with other music A-listers like Beiber and hip-hop legend Nas.
The album also shines unavoidably at several other moments – most notably in the party anthem ‘Ni**as in Paris’, where the two legendary MC’s goof around on an also legendary track from super-producer Hit Boy, and in ‘New Day’, the RZA-produced ballad where both West and Carter rap to their unborn sons (“Sorry junior, I already ruined ya – you ain’t even born yet and paparazzi pursuin’ ya”).
As a whole, there really isn’t one particular weakness to point out on Watch the Throne – even the bonus tracks are a strong addition – but the album carries an abnormal quality that sets it apart from an average big name pop music release. At times, on songs like ‘Otis’ and ‘Liftoff’ (which carries a rare 3/4 time signature), it seems as if the two superstar creators particularly set out to prove their ability to do the un-doable, and in the process, created a situation that flies slightly over the head of the average listener.
On the contrary, and to the credit of West and Jay-Z (who probably enjoy the abnormal aspect of the album more than any other), the album gets better with every listen, and these first-of-their-kind characteristics grow quickly on interested ears. But the flip side – the drastic, strange first impression, probably played a leading role in much of the negative blog-talk and substandard reviews that the album received.
All in all, after a few trips through the not-so-average listening process, it is undeniable that Watch the Throne is a stellar album. At first, the gems like “No Church” and “Why I Love You” keep the listener from moving on, and then as time passes, the more subtle brilliance of the album creeps up and shows it’s true colors. West and Carter very much delivered on an ambitious, one-of-a-kind project, and with any luck, it might inspire others to feed the main stage of popular music with more collaborative and abnormal projects, which should keep things interesting. Cross your fingers…
Written by Andrew Judson Heindel
Follow A.J. on Twitter at @theandrewjudson