Let’s talk for a minute about hype. Public Enemy once famously implored us not to believe it. After all, hype is used to cover up shortcomings in that which is being hyped. There should be no pomp and circumstance—the work should speak for itself, right? Ultimately, children, hype breeds disappointment.
At least, that’s what most dissenters would say. In my opinion, however, the purpose of hype is to get people excited about a project. And that’s exactly what happened with Watch The Throne, the new album from Jay-Z and Kanye West. (The duo have dubbed themselves The Throne, a moniker I refuse to use.)
But the hype also brought a ton of criticism. In fact, people criticized the entire album before listening to it, mind you, saying it would only be a purely materialistic affair, a slap in the face to people who, in this economy, have virtually nothing. It was also said that the album wasn’t being done for the love of hip-hop, it was done so that Kanye and Jay could “win.” And I loved that such sentiments were usually backed up with qualifiers like, “I love these niggas and have supported them their whole careers but …” Fuck outta heah with that noise. Please just listen to the goddamned music.
As stated, people had already made their minds up about the album before even listening to the album, and, admittedly, its first releases didn’t help matters: “H.A.M.” was a rather ham-fisted attempt to ride the current Lex Luger-helmed Southern bounce wave. It was a massive mistake on The Throne’s behalf—okay, I used it—not because they’re incapable but because they’re supposed to be setting trends, not following them. Granted, the duo put their own spin on the “B.M.F.” retread—those indulgent operatic flourishes are all Kanye.
They fared better with “Otis,” a soulful paean to material excess build upon a stabby sample chop of Otis Redding‘s classic “Try A Little Tenderness.” (The video dropped last night, and it is a doozy.) Instead of relying on a catchy hook, as most rappers are wont to do these days, Jay and Kanye trade obscenely opulent verses in a back and forth manner reminiscent of hip-hop’s golden era. Still, the critics would not be silenced. Many once again complained, based on “Otis,” that the duo would only rap about material excess; many more felt the need to crucify the album on behalf of the common man, the average listener who could not afford an other other Benz, let alone one.
So when the album finally released on Monday at midnight, people’s preconceived notions of what Watch The Throne would be about were already firmly planted in their heads. No amount of album spins or dissection of lyrics would sway them. Their minds were made up before track one even began. Which is a damned shame, because the album is an amazing piece of work.
In a move that should shut the naysayers’ mouths, the album opens with “No Church in the Wild,” which features the first of two Frank Ocean appearances. It’s a powerful, thought-provoking song that deals with the MCs’ struggles with faith and spirituality. So much for only being about material excess. The album follows up with the inspirational (and unfairly maligned) “Lift Off” featuring Beyoncé Knowles. With its “take it to the moon/take it to the stars” chorus, uplifting theme, and stadium hip-hop feel, it’s sure to be a radio smash and, ultimately, listener favorite.
Other standouts include the deeply affecting and introspective “New Day.” Co-produced by RZA, the track finds Kanye and Jay speaking to their unborn sons, but also to themselves; West reflecting on past professional and personal mistakes, Jay already mourning the negative impact he’s had on a child that hasn’t even been conceived yet. “Sorry junior/I already ruined ya/Cuz you ain’t even alive, paparazzi pursuin’ ya/Sins of the father make your life ten times harder.”
“Why I Love You” finds Jay finally talking to those who have taken shots at him the past few years. I wonder how the Broad Street Bully feels about lines like, “I tried to teach niggas how to be kings/And all they ever wanted to be was soldiers.” Ouch. And the superb “Murder to Excellence” deals with a number of topics affecting black America, including the murder rate and the lack of representation in higher social, political, and economic circles. “In the past, if you picture events like a black tie/What’s the last thing you expect to see?/Black guys,” rhymes West. It’s a sobering sentiment.
But wait a minute. I thought the album was solely going to be about material gain. Slapping poor niggas in the face with opulence. No worries, Watch The Throne has that in spades as well.
The sophisticated ignorance of “Niggas in Paris” will have you swinging haymakers in the nightclub, and if the DJ really wants to incite a riot, he’ll follow up with the dubstep-inspired “Who Gon’ Stop Me.” The swag anthem “Primetime” is so very necessary, and the Swizz Beats banger “Welcome to the Jungle” features the producer’s trademark bounce upon which Jigga spits his trademark barbs.
Watch The Throne, however, is not flawless. The message of the discombobulated “That’s My Bitch” seems a little confusing—is the song damning gold-diggers or praising women of color?—and despite its good intentions, “Made in America” (again featuring Ocean) is a bit overwrought. Sweet baby Jesus, indeed.
Yet ultimately it is a satisfying album that did exactly what it set out to do: elevate the game. Rappers need to step their bars up, and producers need to come correct with the beats. Kanye and Jay did make this album for hip-hop. They’re showing us what can be done and leading the way. They don’t have to win; they’ve already won. And with Watch The Throne, they’re trying to create a whole new winners’ circle.