Kanye West & Jay-Z

Watch the Throne

BY Del F. CowiePublished Aug 9, 2011

Taken at face value, the title (Watch the Throne) invokes the gazing of deferring awe at opulence and excess. But the phrase could also communicate guarded insecurity. Both themes pervade this collaboration between two of the most influential figures in hip-hop, and uneasy bedfellows, never truly reconciling, but that doesn't mean there isn't plenty to enjoy, both above and below the surface. Kanye West, fresh off his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy triumph, is in an extended sonic mood, picking up from that effort, inviting back unlikely collaborators (La Roux, Bon Iver) and throwing in a couple of nods to dubstep. Meshing veteran, esteemed hip-hop producers such as Q-Tip and the RZA with his grandiose vision results in a style somewhere between gritty boom-bap and the palatial environs in which most of these tracks were recorded. The ostentatious "Otis," an invigorating tag-team ode to conspicuous consumption randomly applied to soul man Redding's unbridled emotive power, is a prime example, as is the over-the-top "Lift Off," featuring a swooping Beyoncé, which curiously only features an awkward half-verse from beau Jay-Z. However, Jay-Z is in fine greenback-waving form on "Who Gon Stop Me" and "planking on a million" on the Neptunes-scored standout "Gotta Have It." While these revelations will hardly be comforting to a nation recovering from a scarring debt ceiling debate, Jay-Z and Kanye plumb their vulnerabilities and doggedly determined back-stories to provide a compelling counterpoint to the copious Museum of Modern Arts references and outlandish swag on display. "Welcome to the Jungle" finds Jay-Z disclosing rarely shared lows with a devastating clipped flow and on "New Day," the duo rhyme to their future sons (and legacies), with West's sarcastic swipe at his detractors a highlight. But it's the two-part "Murder to Excellence" that best illustrates that the latent anxiety they'd like to convey is indeed lurking beneath their success. While the second half of the track ends celebrating "black excellence" and being in the same tax bracket as Oprah and Will Smith, in their customized tailoring of the American Dream, it begins with an extensive rumination on the death toll of young black men in urban environments. On a record that can be so triumphant and shameless in its decadence, it's telling that the myth of material comfort still necessitates a furtive look over the shoulder.

Latest Coverage