#1: Watch The Throne
Ajay: The defining moment of the year for a variety of reasons.
Reason 1: Scale. Watch the Throne marked the creation and delivery of one of the biggest, most-anticipated collaboration albums of all-time. Few duos can boast the collective starpower of these two, and the genesis of such a project arguably made for the biggest collaborative album in years. Whilst the individual egos of Jay-Z and Kanye West led to delays, remakes and revamps, the mere fact they managed to set aside those swollen self-perceptions for 14 tracks also proved a benchmark moment in mainstream hip-hop.
Reason 2: Style. WTT was a huge advocate of the importance of surrounding style on the core product. The one video released from the album, Otis, was a picture of simplicity with light flashes of cool, understated style to build the ‘artsy and minimal’ vibe that Jay in particular associates himself with, whilst the Tisci-designed album and single artworks were of the same mould, blending a hint of eccentricity with an overall straight-laced style. This integrated approach (and it extends beyond just artwork and videos into the other various bits of promotional work for the LP) demonstrated the importance of a clear, well-communicated style and direction in creating a holistic project that builds considerable hype.
Reason 3: Substance. WTT represented the shift in tastes to style over substance. The ‘artistic integration’ proved little more than pretension to cover the cracks of what was a musical disappointment and make many fans (hipsters) feel like they were setting themselves apart from ‘the crowd’ by looking at a Tisci artwork whilst listening to a RZA production. Whilst mainstream hip-hop has been mostly style over substance for many years, it wasn’t expected that the musical content of two hip-hop heavyweights with genuine talent could lack so much substance that it fell secondary to the thick helpings of style served alongside it. The collaboration of such acts should produce something with more replay value than a couple of weeks, and that huge flaw was borne from the sheer repetitiveness and unoriginality found in the actual raps on the project. The production was mostly excellent, and that’s not ever to be denied, but the lyrical work on the album was not befitting two artists of this calibre, and instead felt more suited to both a YMCMB-style album and audience. I’ll not drag on about the disappointment found here, and you can read my in-depth thoughts on the album here.
Indi: For better or worse this album was the talking point of 2011.
With two of the biggest artists in hip hop, who appeal to fans of most genres, the hype was always going to be absolutely huge. Did the quality of the album match up to the hype? Well, considering previews written by those fortunate enough to be in attendance at the pre-release listening parties heralding it as one of the most innovative albums of all-time, it’s safe to say it did not live up to expectations.
The album, however, did something no other album has managed in the digital age: it didn’t leak onto the internet before release! This is because it was released exclusively on iTunes a week or so before it hit stores; a sales strategy that has been long overdue. Jay-Z and Kanye West are by no means the first to drop something exclusively digitally, but they’re by far and away the biggest artists to do this in hip-hop, and hopefully it will set a trend for everyone else in the industry.
On a production tip, it certainly follows on from Kanye West’s utterly brilliant My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, with each and every song on this album produced as excellently as expected. However, the album lacked the cohesion of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and lyrically it was as disappointing as Jay-Z’s watered down (by his standards) Blueprint 3. It’s interesting Ajay should note the trend shifting to style over substance, as Blueprint 3 really is a great example of this; lyrically it didn’t do much to satisfy, but yet it didn’t stop the masses enjoying it thoroughly. That’s something you can attribute to Watch the Throne too, and the number of fans and critics that loved it is quite bewildering when you consider the quality of lyricism Eminem and Royce Da 5’9″ produced with their collaboration album Bad Meets Evil without a tenth of the acclaim.
With that said, what I consider to be the highlights of WTT really are impressive: New Day was one of the most honest tracks of the year, Who Gon Stop Me finally saw a true embrace to an electro/dubstep sound from mainstream US hip-hop (something already synonymous with the UK hip-hop industry), Murder to Excellence genuinely is up there with the best collaborations Jay and Kanye have ever produced and that’s not even mentioning the impact Ni**as in Paris made.
Jay and Kanye embarked on a 24-date, North American concert tour to promote the album between October and December, and something strange happened. On one of these dates after performing Ni**as in Paris, giving the crowd what they wanted, they did an encore of the song. At each following concert date they looked to outdo themselves and so one encore became two, two became four and so on, culminating in a repeat performance of Ni**as in Paris an unfathomable 10 times at their last date in Vancouver, cementing it as many people’s anthem of the year. Say what you want to say about Watch the Throne, but it made an incredible impact on 2011, and for us in Europe we’re all impatiently waiting for them to do an official tour over these shores.
That sh*t cray!