Renato Pagnani writes his curses in Times New Roman.
Watch the Throne is the product of two artists that have nothing left to do but buy more 16th-century Persian rugs and continue trying to acquire the very goblet that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper. Both Jay-Z and Kanye West are now part of tax brackets that subtract more money from their annual income than 99% of their listeners manage to even gross. Their economic realities are reflected in their castle-and-moat rap, their constant barrage of references to designer labels and high-society signifiers like Rainer Maria Rilke manuscripts. Their album-length collaboration raises the drawbridge to the point where it’s impossibly difficult for peasants to connect with the kings.
That Kanye comes harder than Jay-Z does isn’t the biggest problem with Watch the Throne, although it’s a reality one quickly has to accept. It’s like watching Michael Bay attempt to do an art-house film, but refusing to tone down the number of explosions and car crashes and fast edits; it’s expensive (it actually sounds like the annual GDP of the European Union was spent recording it) but any humanity that manages to escape post-processing and scuff removal is little more than a simulacra of the real thing.
Attempts to twist the English language into novel shapes have been supplanted by mere lists of things they own (“Pablo Picasso, Rothko, Rilkes” Jay-Z rattles off on “Who Gon Stop Me”). On the wildly lazy bonus track, “Illest Motherfucker Alive,” Kanye even succumbs to listing celebrities whose cell phone numbers he has (who have all probably blocked Kanye’s number, tired of the three-in-the-morning calls in which all that is audible are stuffed-nose sobs and the slurred mentions of the names “Amber” and “Alexis”). It’s one of the album’s two attempts at Lex Luger beats as imagined by Werner Herzog collaborating with Prada: “Damn baby, pussy can’t be your only hustle/ Unless you bad as Naomi Russell/ I mean a lot of niggas got money, so basically Russell ain’t the only Russell/ Russell Brand, Russell Crowe/ Zero zero zero zero, a whole lot of O’s.”
“Warhols, Basquiats, serving as my muses,” admits Jay-Z on the same track, and later in the same verse he goes on to reference Robert De Niro and Scarface in one of the most clichéd Hov verses ever. Over a decade ago, when Jay-Z rapped “In the Ferrari or Jaguar, switchin’ four lanes/ With the top down screamin’ out, money ain’t a thang,” we knew it was true, but more importantly Jay-Z made it sound like the time of your life. Now, he doesn’t even sound excited about all the cool shit he owns, or the fact that he gets see Beyoncé naked. He gets to see Beyoncé naked.
Watch the Throne also suffers from its inability to reconcile flashing its custom encrusted-with-rocks-from-Jupiter Rolex with a streak of race-consciousness that never really does anything more than stew awkwardly. Starting a song out by saying “this is something like the holocaust” is in poor taste; not explaining or following it up afterwards is just offensive. The Blades of Glory sample on “Niggas in Paris” where Will Ferrell admits to saying things because they’re provocative and not because they make any sort of logical sense is basically Watch the Throne in a nutshell, especially when it gets political. And really, most of the things they say don’t even sound cool.
Even when the two venture into more personal territory, like the ostensible letter to their future sons that is “New Day,” there’s such an already-lost exhaustion to their raps that it feels at odds with the cautious optimism they try to communicate. The song isn’t really about their future kids at all, but just another excuse to whine about their own “problems” (which bespoke Savile Row suit to wear today, why the government won’t rubberstamp their importing of sharks from the Australian reef for their living-room aquatic installation, whether to invest in land on the moon before Chris Martin snaps up all the prime real estate).
The overcooked production espouses the mantra that if one has nothing to say one should surround their verbiage with the most flashy bombast one can purcha—er, produce. The mechanical throb of “Niggas in Paris” struggles to produce forward momentum, batting away the flows of Jay-Z and Kanye as if they were minor mixtape-rap emcees. “Lift Off” is a blindingly cramped version of “Flashing Lights,” without any of the infectious glee of the Graduation standout’s candy-coated synths.
Instead of trend-creating, Watch the Throne is largely a trend-chasing affair, but it’s also an oddly timid one, like the Flux Pavillion sample on “Who Gon Stop Me,” which slows down the dubstep track to a crawl, removing all its aggressive beauty, presumably because Kanye knew that Jay-Z wouldn’t be able to keep up with his walker.
It’s not all reach-for-the-stars-and-crash-and-burn failures, though. The back-and-forth ball-tossing of “Gotta Have It” is fun, the camaraderie between Jay-Z and Kanye actually rising over the track’s velvet smoke—hearing the two finish each other’s lines and jokes makes you want to high-five the closest person. “The Joy” is an organic, wool-knit track that unfurls in waves, and “Primetime” tumbles forward on a shootout-outside-of-the-saloon piano loop, over which Jay-Z actually sounds invigorated, trading his stop-and-start old man flow for something younger looking.
The few instances where Jay-Z and Kanye are content to fuck around and show us how good they are rather than just provide evidence is when Watch the Throne approaches the potential the project had. The album lacks a sense of wide-eyed revelry—it’s more concerned with documenting their legacies than furthering them. It’s the rap version of the Colossus of Rhodes, a towering platinum statue of both emcees high-fiving each other while being fellated by Greek goddesses. It feels simultaneously like a teleological endpoint for this sort of thing and a relic of a distant past. But hey, at least it didn’t leak, right?
MP3: Kanye West & Jay-Z -“The Joy”