Jay-Z first collaborated with Kanye West in 2000 to produce his critically acclaimed song “This Can’t Be Life”. The next year Kanye had a bigger hand in producing Jay-Z’s breakthrough “The Blueprint”. Despite the album’s release date (September the 11th 2001) the album went double platinum and became a watershed moment for Jay-Z; he finally had a classic Hip-Hop album under his belt as well as mainstream acceptance. Three years later Kanye starts his own critically acclaimed career and ten years later he’s been named future God Father to Jay-Z and Beyonce’s first born child.
The influence they’ve had on each others success speaks volumes for itself and the friendship they share even louder that that. So around the ten year anniversary of their biggest collaborative success they have released their most cohesive project to date.
“Watch the Throne” doesn’t just see the two biggest names in hip hop coming together on one or two songs, the entire album is one gigantic Super-Collaboration, born out of mutual respect and friendship, out of similar ideals, similar politics and similar experiences growing up.
One thing that is evident from the outset is the pride they feel for their race. Neither have ever pulled their punches when it came to expressing their racial politics (just watch Kanye call out then President George W. Bush in an extraordinary link during the Katrina Aid effort) and the pride they feel towards the trailblazers of Black American music is clear from the very beginning. The album opens up with a guitar riff that is hardly traditional hip hop but brings to mind the swamps of Louisiana where Blues was grown from the bayou’s. It’s a great riff, one that has a quiet and low intensity, like a snake stalking it’s prey through the long grass. It’s then followed up by the first words of the album, words that are sung by neither Jay-Z or Kanye but by Frank Ocean, a man whose honest tone lends a gravitas to some already weighty words.
It’s an example of the exemplary production on an album that never steals from its predecessors but reinvents them for the 21st century. James Brown, Nina Simone and, of course, Otis Reading all make appearances, their voices all held up high like chalices during a Eucharist. This is the passion of two proud African Americans sharing their love of the culture that created them with the world. It turns the album into a museum of Black American music, taking you on a journey through the history of the modern world’s most dominant source of musical inspiration.
But the production does more than just update the old, it updates the new. Kanye West is a master producer, a man who leads the way, influencing others rather than merely being influenced himself. His beats never overpower the all important words but they always add a sense of urgency or awe to the poetry of both men.
However it is here that the album suffers a fatal stumble. I’ve mentioned before that both Kanye and Jay-Z are uncompromising in their beliefs. Well that brazen attitude toward expressing themselves has not only lead them to appear controversial but also out of touch with the people. From the moment Beyonce enters the fray on track two, she becomes the final segment in a holy trinity of exuberant wealth and arrogant pondering.
What starts out as a promising look at the beliefs and mind set of people struggling both physically and spiritually with inner city life, descends into near sickening levels of self praise. “How many people you know can take it this far?” sings Beyonce congratulating herself and her coven of fellow elitists on their extraordinary levels of fame and wealth. Even the the futuristic sound and galactic theme place the trio so far away from the life of their average listener that if they were to explode they would never here the sound. Not all the people who listen to Jay-Z win the right to live in the White House. Speaking of which Obama would never have needed to cancel the space program if only he could harness the power of their colossal egos.
And this is only the first mistake of an album that plunges itself headlong into the depths of the faux pas. Other glaring errors include using Otis Reading’s sublime voice in a song which does nothing else but brag about a life as a self styled celebrity gangster. Perhaps most confusing of all is a song in which both men fantasise about being fathers and the respect they will teach to their children. It’s confusing because it is followed directly by a song called “That’s My Bitch”. All this paints a picture of a pair of rappers so caught up in the praise they receive for their talents that they have lost all sense of perspective with the real world.
And this being Hip Hop it’s the words that matter in the end. Hip Hop was created when the poetry young people were writing in the streets became legitimised with the beats placed under them. And that is the essence of Hip Hop. The words came first and they most definitely are first. It doesn’t matter how much your production shows the influence of music made in poorer surroundings, if you can’t express this in your lyrics then no one will believe in your cause. No amount of civil rights remembrance or “Hey, remember when I used to be poor too?” will cover up the sheer amount of Braggadocio on display in this album.
This is what is wrong at the heart of the mainstream hip hop culture. The phrase “keeping it real” has been the most hypocritical sentiment in modern music for years. The phrase started off as a way for the artist to show how they have never sold out, but it became such a part of hip hop furniture even “rappers” like P Diddy and J-Lo started to spout it in videos that could have subsided their costs to eliminate 3rd world debt. And with Jay-Z taking that final step into this most infuriating of sub genres it marks a low point for one the pasts most genuinely legitimate talents.
Maybe I’m being harsh. There is the possibility that this has all been done to parody the form of rap that I have spent so much of this review bashing. The personalities on display and the extreme nature of some of the situations are so OTT that this could easily be a joke and I’m the idiot for not getting it.
But somehow, I doubt it. There is enough past evidence in Jay-Z’s later work (as well as in some of Yeezy’s more outrageous public outburst’s) that it’s all too plausable for this to be how they really think. It lends a surreal quality to their work; it takes you through the mindset of individuals who haven’t had to worry about a bill payment for so long they’ve forgotten what it feels like.
Watch the Throne is a very recommendable album but only to those who don’t invest much time in deriving meaning from what the two stars have to say. The little that is there is easily missed amongst all of the bravado and even when it does get through it can feel as empty as the zero’s on the checks they received for making it.