After delays, rumours of unrest and much more, Monday saw the long-awaited release of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne. Arguably, one of the most anticipated collaborative albums in the past decade, it’s undoubtedly one of those rare events that captures the attention of the entire hip-hop community, consequentially resulting in thousands of reviews and opinions. Add one more to that list.
There’s been no hiding my positive opinions on Kanye West and his work over the years, whilst any appreciation for Jay-Z at this stage surely goes without saying (regardless of The Blueprint 3). The collaboration of the two should theoretically give rise to one of the finest synergies in hip-hop history, with two vanguards of hip-hop cementing the genre’s dominance across music.
Before delving into the musical analysis, let’s take a look at the project’s details: the artwork was designed by Givenchy’s creative director Ricardo Tisci, a name unknown to those without a strong interest in fashion and Haute Couture. The iTunes-exclusive release was an innovative and bold move (pipe down Joe Budden, no-one’s listening). There was no radio single, with Otis coming with both a sample and a style largely and deliberately unsuited to the role of lead single, foregoing mainstream acceptance for critical acclaim. The album was premiered to select members of the press in a planetarium, surrounded by spectacular lights and cosmic imagery.
The above list isn’t comprehensive, but clearly shows that the details surrounding the album had artistic, maverick qualities that suggested we were in for something alternative and almost revolutionary. Much like Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, nothing quite felt ordinary, and hence built a rebellious aura around the album that far transcended the confines of ‘music album’.
Unfortunately however, that non-conformity appears to have spread into the album, with a disjointed and unstructured product that listens more like a collection of singles than a cohesive, collaborative project years in the making. With the storybook nature of Kanye West’s last two albums, and Jay-Z’s own American Gangster, the synergy of the two was rightfully expected to deliver a logical path to either a scripted conclusion or a musical epiphany throughout the course of the album. High demands of any other artist or duo, but surely not of ‘The Throne’.
It’s that lack of structure that leads me to declare that this isn’t an album. It’s a greatest hits collection from years of studio sessions.
However snobbish and ‘unfair’ my above criticisms may be, they are thankfully not given much company by the actual content: the result of sounding like a greatest hits collection is that in isolation, the songs are mostly crafted from lush, unique soundscapes that individually drive you along several paths the album as an entirety would have failed to do so.
With No Churches In The Wild, the LP opens with a thudding percussion that pounds along, combining with a bassy funk melody and snaking its way quickly into vocalist-of-the-moment Frank Ocean’s well-written hook, escalating its comparisons to religion and ending in atheism, offering a real and thought-provoking perspective on both the escalation and ultimate destination of power. Jay-Z enters the fray with some solid, if unspectacular raps, though his dulcet tones weave nicely with the booming production. The-Dream (apparently) then makes a cameo with a somewhat ill-fitting, heavily-autotuned bridge, though the track is recovered by a solid Kanye West verse, and a little more vocal from Frank. Aside from the odd bridge, a very good opener that kicks the album off with a captivating rebellious edge.
Lift Off follows, and shows the first signs of the aforementioned incongruence in the album. The production is triumphant and boasts a powerful, mainstream-ready hook from Beyonce that makes this the inevitable contender for chart success, and as a result is frankly far too clean-cut for an album of this ilk. There doesn’t seem to be a particular thematic anchor to the track, and instead it relies far too heavily on the natural projection of Beyonce’s voice as an epicentre, an uncharacteristically lazy move that stems the nonconformist momentum created by the opener in favour of mainstream pandering.
Ni**as in Paris switches the emphasis to a head-nodding style that boasts a relatively minimal production, yet possesses an urgency that infects the arrogant verses of Ye and Jay with an intensity, creating a cumulative power that adds a little more credence to the otherwise-familiar raps. It does however become somewhat repetitive, though thankfully that’s broken up by a bassy bridge, flowing into a key-driven outro that adds a some much-needed emotion into the track. One that will undoubtedly sound great in the car, but unlikely to stick around long enough for end-of-year lists.
The previously-released Otis is next, and comes as a refreshing change from the gradual emotional distancing felt in the tracks: the ‘easy route’ option of Lift Off and the braggadocios Ni**as In Paris lack a real personal touch, and whilst this doesn’t change much lyrically, the Otis Redding sample does add an organic quality to infuse the music with a more ‘human’ touch.
Amongst the rack of superstar producers announced for this project, one that went relatively unheralded was The Neptunes. It may not seem like anything out of the ordinary, but for a Neptunes beat to get picked suggests they’d finally switched their game up somewhat, and Gotta Have It certainly suggests that’s the case. With very few shreds of their usual style on this, the trio bring forth a soul-sampling, eastern-infused production that fits seamlessly with the lavish, champagne lifestyle raps of the duo. The back-and-forth rapping on this one is a highlight, as the pair trade raps to evoke memories of Jay and Biggie’s classic Brooklyn’s Finest. Unlike that classic, it feels here as if the duet structure merely covers any holes in the raps, but is a rare and enjoyable listen nonetheless.
A New Day, a new outlook. Any criticism of either artist’s ability to storytell or rap about a genuine topic is thrown by the wayside with this fantastic show of contemplative, melancholy raps, as both rap to their respective unborn children in an exceptional show of emotion. It stands out as one of the most personal tracks either artist has made in recent years, and both verses will warrant many, many replays. Credit must be given to the RZA production, as the Abbott blends Nina Simone’s Feeling Good with a rich range of instruments to really capture the essence of the track with a wonderfully wistful soundscape. What’s important however is that this is a track you can feel. The album as a whole feels extremely devoid of emotion and personal connection, and this certainly stands up as an exception to that rule.
That’s My Bitch follows, and is largely similar to the original version ‘released’ towards the end of last year. A fast-paced, action-packed track, there’s not much to guess about the song with such a title, but there’s plenty to like about this song with addictive vocal work from Elly Jackson and smart flows from Jay-Z, all set amongst heavy, clunking drums that have a wonderfully distinctive quality. However, it’s another case of bad sequencing as coming off the back of the fantastic introspection of New Day, it feels both poorly judged and placed, arguably reducing the sincerity and effectiveness of the preceding track.
I’m not one of those on the Swizzy bandwagon, and frankly that doesn’t change here on Welcome To The Jungle: a decidedly-average production on an outstandingly-produced album. Monotonous and repetitive, the production has predictable high spots that don’t elevate the track to anywhere near the level it needs to be at to keep pace with the rich soundscapes provided elsewhere on the LP.
The much-publicised sample of Flux Pavilion’s dubstep smash I Can’t Stop is up next, as Who Gon Stop Me opens with the familiar vocal sample and is soon met by a toned-down, shriller version of the jaw-rattling bass from the same track. There’s a progressive energy about the track, with the verses building patiently to a solid hook that blends the aforementioned vocal sample with a digitised Kanye hook. A decent listen that brings an infectious intensity, and a track that will almost certainly penetrate the mainstream and surely become the primary dancefloor anthem from the album.
Of the many quotes that circulated from the previews of this album, the proclamation that ‘Swizzy has produced one of his best beats in a decade’ really caught my eye. He’s been very hit-and-miss for years, but this is indeed something that many will consider the magnum opus of Swizz Beatz’s career. Murder To Excellence opens with a slightly disquieting vocal sample and dark, edgy guitars, before being swiftly met by pulsating drum work that unfurls the work as a buzzing, perpetually-moving production with a hopeful glint. The perpetual motion of the production is enhanced with the entire change of emphasis around halfway through, as Swizz strips the production right back, pulling through a tighter synergy between the lyrical work and the beat. The lyrics are much more commendable here, tackling the black-on-black violence subject with engaging verses, whilst the deliveries utilise the natural ebb and flow of the production smoothly, including the aforementioned production switch.
The next track truly solidifies its featured artist as one of the brightest acts in music right now. Overshadowing Kanye and Jay simultaneously is a feat rarely accomplished, but Frank Ocean successfully manages to ensure that he is simply the voice to be focused on here. Unlike Beyonce’s hook on Lift Off, Frank delivers a chorus in a solemn and understated manner that adds true feeling to his voice, and despite being the lyrics very simple, his incredible command over a melody shines through to overpower any criticisms of them. With two stellar performances on the album, there can be no doubt over both Frank’s ability as a vocalist, and potential success as an artist. A wispy, ambient production makes for a welcome change of pace here, bringing a laidback, atmospheric quality that offers itself to be laced with introspective rhymes. They are forthcoming in short bursts, in particular Jay-Z’s section that once again refers to his future children, and though Kanye’s verse starts on a decent retrospective tip, he soon runs out of steam as his verse progresses, descending into egotism once again.
Why I Love You brings a very European flavour, with Cassius samples utilised heavily for the hook and production, alongside Mr Hudson’s own version of the original hook layered alongside it. Once again the production deserves praise, offering a thick, booming package that successfully combines house, hip-hop and an alternative vibe into a winding, slow-paced product. Jay takes up most of the rapping space here, and whilst he clearly has some targets in line with a few of the lines here, the aggression doesn’t often align with the beat too well and creates a tangible distance between the vocal and production, reducing either’s effectiveness.
After an inexplicable 3-minute wait (it would make sense on the CD to act as a ‘hidden track’, but on the download? Really?), the deluxe tracks are introduced with Illest Motherf**ker Alive. The track breaks the silence with an almost pantomime-style melody, and moves into an entirely parallel style with an urgent, booming production comprised of throbbing production, atmospheric synths and haunting keys. The blend makes for one of the finest productions on the album, with the diversity of the composite elements making for a versatile listen and lending itself to the subject-switching raps of either artist. Kanye is rather disappointing here, but there’s something endearing about Jay-Z’s unabashed swagger raps here, likely to be resulting from their congruence with the production style.
One of the survivors from the ‘first version’ of the album is up next, as H.A.M. bursts into life with the busy Lex Luger production. The track was never particularly endearing, and whilst there’s an undeniable ferocity in the production, it quite simply doesn’t feel suited to either artist to make it worthy of long-term listening. It is however an enjoyable track in rare, isolated examples, and doesn’t particularly suffer from the sequencing errors made throughout the album, instead capitalising on the vigour of the track preceding it.
Soft keys and distorted samples are lined up next on Primetime, gradually combining into a slightly offbeat and unconventional production from No I.D. that blends a soulful template with a hip-hop sensibility, throwing in a hint of eccentricity for a unique and enjoyable platform. Much like Illest, it’s a versatile and eclectic production that allows the rappers to take the subject matter into a few different directions, though they rarely venture off the beaten path and instead play it relatively safe with the egocentricity. It certainly feels like a missed opportunity, with a beat tailor-made for a storytelling structure.
The album is closed by The Joy, a version of which we were treated to (albeit with more guest features) as part of Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Fridays series last year. Helmed by Pete Rock, the track boasts similarities to Otis with a prominent soul sample (Curtis Mayfield this time) being heavily involved, and once again it succeeds on humanising the track considerably, adding emphasis to the slightly more contemplative raps from Kanye in particular.
An oft-repeated (retweeted) quote I read prior to this album’s release was that ‘each song felt like an act in a movie’. It really does play like a film too, albeit one overly focused on technical excellence with relative ignorance of the part that matters: the storyline.
Though, there is a storyline. Every film has one. The details mentioned at the top of this review surrounding the album’s release suggested art and creativity was the intention, one to be fleshed out with the spoken word of either rapper. Yet, a few listens of the album reveal those details to be accessories to lavishness and offshoots of egotism: they did those things because they wanted to, and because they could afford to. Not for any creative goal. That mentality seeps into the album itself, with raps largely focused on self-praise and brash statements, chasm-like distances between the productions and the vocals reducing any emotional investment the listener may hope to have, and a general lack of structure that prevent even the most studious listener from finding an extended metaphor in the project. Those factors suggest that the ‘film’ was borne of ego, and not of creative intentions.
However, is that always a bad thing? The respective egos ensure that the LP is excellent from a production standpoint, bringing the best out of both West and the other producers enlisted. There will be underappreciation in the mainstream for the richness of productions such as Murder to Excellence and the lyrical intimacy of efforts such as New Day: without a hefty dose of ego, the risk of alienating mainstream listeners in such a manner wouldn’t have been taken.
It’s a successful synergy in that it coolly swerves any pre-conceived notions of the album in its diversity and offers isolated examples of true excellence, each taking you on musical paths that express a multitude of messages. The album plays as a collection of the best beats from many years of working together, searching to find the perfect pieces. However, they aren’t quite pieces to a puzzle, hence there seems to be no resulting ‘bigger picture’, and in addition to suffering from stunted lyrical creativity and a lack of any extended cohesiveness, it falls below expectations. A collaboration between two of hip-hop’s foremost rappers should have produced more.