This article first appeared in Issue 13 of Vulture Hound Magazine. Read it in its full print glory, here.
Watch The Throne, the Jay Z and Kanye West mega-collaboration, dropped 5 years ago in August. Here, Cayle Hotene explores the enduring power of the album, and his personal connection to it.
So it’s been 5 years since this one dropped…. classic, classic, classic. “It didn’t live up to the hy-” FUCK YOU. Classic. It’s not perfect, but it is transcendent. It became more than it was. (Go listen to ‘Otis’ if you’ve forgotten what it feels like to get kicked off the fucking planet). The concert, to this day, remains, the most impressive I’ve ever been to. It’s hard to put into words what Watch The Throne is to me, but I’ll give it a go.
Pressing play (after admiring the epitome of overstated decadence that is the album cover) immediately supplants me to the latter part of 2011 and the summer of 2012. I don’t listen to this album often – maybe a few times a year – but that’s because it’s so potent, so luxurious, that the vibe and environment has to be perfect. I forgot just how mean that backing guitar riff to the opener, ‘No Church In The Wild’, is. Jay kicks it off in typically evocative style: “Tears on the mausoleum floor, blood stains the coliseum doors…” and I’m 18 again – post-first-love break-up, still a kid, bumping my head. Of a mind to pinch myself a couple times.
Golden – Watch The Throne cover art
How stunning was this idea, really? Ye wasn’t far off his career best (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) and while Jay was coming off of his least critically-revered releases to date, the Marcy-born poet still sat atop the throne. Unlike most of our candy coated wishes, this one came true.
Jay might’ve semi-to-fully washed Kanye on nearly every track, but it’s Jay. There’s a reason people (sometimes unwittingly) refer to him as God. Would he have hit those heights with anyone but Yeezy by his side? They pushed each other, drove each other, like brothers do. And when Jay warned about the perils of crossing Ye, I don’t think he was fronting. They rode for each other to the end. You heard it in every track, that level of chemistry is the holy grail. And that chemistry isn’t there anymore, sadly.
As always, what Yeezy lacked in technical polish he made up for with rabid passion, self-belief, and balls-out imagination – nowadays, he seems to have lost but one of those qualities. Can you see present day Yeezy come up with something as unapologetically flagrant (and genius) as: “They ain’t seen me cause I pulled up in my other benz, last week I was in my other OTHER benz“? Impassioned by the presence of his idol, his influence, his Big Brother, Watch The Throne is the final hurrah of the entity Kanye West as we knew him – he never reached those heights again, and never will. At least we were there to live it.
From the legendary one-two punch of ‘Paris’ and ‘Otis’, to Jay’s razing second verse on ‘Who Gon Stop Me’, to the wind-down reflection on ‘New Day’ (at the concert, they both sat next to each other on the stage and performed it in that position), the album is full of the kind of gems that many rappers strive to get one of. The way they trade bars on ‘Otis’ will go down in hip-hop legend, and rightfully so.
I knew we were witnessing something seismic when we went to see the resulting concert. My friends and I danced and weaved through a hallucinatory crowd, and while that may sound needlessly poetic, it truly felt that way – stone cold sober, we each felt wired, elated, out-of-body. They encored ‘Paris’ seven times; and I swear on all that is Hova we could have gone for ten more. There was a connection, there, maybe it was our age, where we are more impressionable, bowing down to influential figures – but more likely, the music, the art, was perfect for us – at a time when I, personally, was in that purgatory stage between being a kid and becoming a man, heady, without any real plan, and yes, maybe a little scared – Watch The Throne felt like a celebration of being alive, being young (in soul or body) and especially, being foolish without apology. And it still does.
We torment ourselves with what we think hip-hop needs, willing stars to align to sate our wide-eyed dreams, believing secretly it won’t happen… except this time, it did. Watch The Throne – the album, the tour, the goddam idea itself – is the union of two kings of rap, never equalled. And the beauty of that, as much as I valiantly try, can’t really be put into words.
The Gods smiled on this one, and willed it into life. One invented sweat. One made Jesus Walk. And they’re both responsible for Watch The Throne. Salute.