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August 10, 2011

Album Review: Jay-Z & Kanye West - Watch the Throne

Despite having been a fan of Jay-Z since, The Blueprint and Kanye since, Graduation, I had my doubts on this collaboration. Yes, it's father and son working in perfect harmony, or is it? I mean the talents here are both boundless and unquestionable. These are two leaders of their particular pack. In terms of personalities and profiles that each artist exudes, I have absolutely no interest, however, their music is impressive. With egos such as these, there was always going to be drama. The album release in itself was an episode with all kinds of rumours breaking over 'professional' differences of opinion and 'musical' variances in tact.

'Watch the Throne' is the recent collaborative studio album by, 'The Throne', an American hip hop duo composed of Jay-Z and Kanye West. The album will be released by Roc-A-Fella Records, Roc Nation, and Def Jam Recordings, Jay-Z's and West's respective record labels. Its digital release was August 8th, while its physical release is scheduled for August 12. An official 12-song track list, with four bonus tracks slated for the LP's deluxe version. The previously released "H.A.M." doesn't appear on the album proper but instead is earmarked on this deluxe version.
Originally intended as a five-track EP by Jay-Z and West, 'Watch the Throne' was revealed by, West to be a full-length album in an October 2010 interview for MTV. He said in the interview that they planned to record in the South of France. Production for the album began in November in Bath, England and continued during available times in, Jay-Z's and, West's respective schedules at recording locations in Australia, Paris, New York City, and Los Angeles. In an interview for Billboard, Jay-Z said that they often recorded in hotel rooms and that the album went through three iterations, as he and, West had scaled back from their original musical direction for the album. He also noted difficulties in the recording process, including arguments with, West regarding their direction. Parts of the album were recorded at the Mercer Hotel and Tribeca Grand Hotel in New York City. In an interview for Rolling Stone, Jay-Z discussed their insistence on recording in person and attributed it to the delay in releasing the album, stating "If we were gonna do it, we were gonna do it together. No mailing it in". The album features guest appearances by recording artists, Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, and, Mr. Hudson.

On July 7th, Jay-Z hosted a private listening session at the Mercer Hotel in New York City, previewing the album's songs from his MacBook Pro for a select group of reporters and music journalists. One of whom summised - "The songs were dramatic and boastful, with Jay-Z often taking the lead lyrically, and the collection showcased the differences between the two artists - Jay-Z, the technical marksman, and Kanye, the emotive chest beater".
Enough of the formalities for now...let's crack on with reviewing this widely anticipated album release. 'No Church in the Wild (ft Frank Ocean)' gets us started with a kick ass little beat, stalker of a bass, and Kanye murmuring "What's a King without a God?" before, Jay-Z rattles off a some strong verses and quickfire lyrics that we come to expect of him. Frank Ocean sings the hook through a vocoder which works in will and being produced by, West, performs the sound of his, 808's & Heartbreak' of 2008. It's a solid start and I do enjoy the bass line here. 'Lift Off' follows with a pumping keyboard/horns sound and strings/other galactic sounds before, Beyoncé sings "We're gonna take it to the moon, take it to the stars." Whether this is a reference to the album itself or some other idea, the track is fast and furious with 80's like synth. Not sure of the need for, Beyonce on this track or the album as a whole.

'Niggas in Paris' is a quirky, percolating little track with amazing sub-bass and a snare that sounds like static. This is of, Jay-Z's, Blueprint ilk and both rappers are in top form, with Jay-Z classic in his " ball so hard motherf*&%$rs want to fine me" Kanye compliments Jay-Z beautifully on this, a standout track- "I'm suffering from realness" and "Don't let me get in my zone." 'Otis' featuring namesake, Otis Redding slows things down and touch and chills things out somewhat. From the classic, 'Try A Little Tenderness' most famous for the, Redding rendition in 1966. I love the song, but not sold on its success in this format. I have my doubts with mixing certain old tracks with the new, and I'm afraid this is the case on this one.

'Gotta Have It' has a decent backing vocal and beat, but doesn't really grab us. Kanye delivers some fairly deep and sarcastic lyrics at the outset with "LOLOLOL, white America, try assassinate my character." Other than this, fairly uninspiring as we reach the mid point of the album. 'New Day' produced by one of my all time hip hop artists, RZA is a quality tune. Again, an interesting topic with both rappers rhyming about raising their hypothetical male offspring. Kayne most engrossing with the powerful deliver of lyrics such as - “I’ll never let my son have an ego. He’ll be nice to everyone wherever we go, I mean, I might even make him be Republican, so everybody know he love white people.” Clearly a small reference to his famous George W Bush altercation. It's a trippy, enjoyable little track despite the perhaps slightly 'off' lyrical content. 'Prime Time' features another of my favourites on the production side with, Q-Tip aiding, West this time around. Some tender keys get us started here before, Jay-Z enters in sultry fashion with "we're in the time of our lives" and the mix scratched in from, 'Public Enemy's', 'Brothers Gonna Work It Out'. It's a slow burner of a track...of course it is – they sampled it from La Roux. It's almost a little, 'Portishead' with male rapper interesting concept.

'Welcome to the Jungle' has a great little twist with a, 'ABC' beat throughtout and reference to the late King of pop, Michael Jackson - "Rest in peace to the leader of the Jackson 5." The mnemonic guitar forms the backdrop here on a more poppy sound than one would perhaps expect. 'Who Gon Stop Me' ruffles us up with more with a pumping bass and rave like synths and, Kanye setting out with - "This is something like a holocaust, millions of our people lost."
"I can't stop-op-op-op-op-op". This is raw, fast, aggressive and edgy. It's more along the lines of what one would expect of two leaders in the game, Jay-Z and, West. This is among my favourites on this offering thus far. 'Murder to Excellence' is a more than worthwhile follow up. In fact, it's probably the albums centerpiece with, Kanye rapping, "Pay-per-view murder, black-on-black murder" it's a song split into two mesmorising parts. “It’s time for us to stop and redefine black power,” West declares in the first part where he compares urban murder tallies to casualties in the Iraq war and even genocide. In part two, Jay-Z appears to find some solace in prestige and wealth - “It’s a celebration of black excellence. Opulence, decadence, tuxes next to the president.” The conclusion being - “Power to the people. When you see me, see you.” With two tracks left, we finally have what we were looking for from this collaboration.

'Made It In America' features, Frank Ocean and instead of looking to the future as the pair had done in, 'New Day', this one looks back at days gone by and key figures in history. While, Jay-Z includes his grandma in his raps while rhyming with "star-spangled banner", Kanye talks about his mama and meeting his producer 'No ID' in Chicago and "getting high on my own supply". 'Why I I Love You' featuring Mr. Hudson brings the curtain down on this colloborative effort, 'Watch The The Throne'. Mr Hudson's hook sounds like a high pitched, shrieking metalheaded bombast, but I do like the tune and beat on the track. Jay-Z's rythyms and verses are pretty good, blasting, "got a pistol under my pit bull." The song, and album is aggressive and ends abruptly in the same fashion as it was delivered.

'Watch the Throne' feels like a fairly meaningful victory following one solitary listen. It is a compelling, complex, conflicted album, layered with heavy commentary on class and race. Thankfully, those anticipating a disastrous ego clash will have to wait until the pair hit the road together later this year. Many of the West co-produced tracks would not sound out of place on, West’s fantastic 2010 album, 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy' which was among my top albums of last year. This one is good, but it's no classic. Rating 7/10 

Some other reviews:

"The album's highlight, and an instant classic, is 'Made in America,' a solid, slow-paced Frank Ocean-teamed jam about the American dream that reveals the main difference between West and Jay-Z: humility." - LA Times

"Both West and Jay-Z were vocal backers of Barack Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign, but now that America is struggling to regain its economic bearings, they rhyme about their private jets, expensive watches and supermodel escapades." - Chicago Tribune

"As a whole it’s not totally legible; there are too many ideas. It's an album with several phenomenal moments, even if it doesn’t quite add up to a phenomenal album." - NY Times

"Dig deep into Throne, past the bacchanal celebration of the finer things in life, and you'll find the album's heart: two men grappling with what it means to be successful and black in a nation that still thinks of them as second class." - Time

Track List
No Church in The Wild (ft. Frank Ocean)
Lift Off (ft. Beyoncé)
Niggas in Paris
Otis (ft. Otis Redding)
Gotta Have It
New Day
Prime Time
Murder to Excellence
Welcome to The Jungle
Made It In America (ft. Frank Ocean)
Why I Love You (ft. Mr Hudson)


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