2 stars (out of 4)
When two of the biggest names in hip-hop – Jay-Z and Kanye West -- collaborate on an album, is there any way it can live up to the hype? Likely not, and that’s the burden “Watch the Throne” (Roc-A-Fella Records/Roc Nation/Def Jam Recordings) faces.
The two have done great work in the past. As a fledgling producer, West delivered soul-fired beats that underscored Jay-Z’s 2001 release, “The Blueprint,” a hip-hop classic. Now the two operate more or less as equals, with West having a hand in most of the production and Jay-Z taking a slightly larger share of the vocals on “Watch the Throne.” In many ways it’s an album about mutual admiration.
Both artists have developed distinct, not necessarily complementary personas. Jay-Z is about imperious flow, bridging his gritty past life on the streets with his current status as a cultural tastemaker and business mogul. He operates at arm’s length from the listener, a self-styled godfather who never seems to break a sweat as he rhymes rings around his inferior would-be competition. He no longer needs to surprise us, he simply needs to file annual updates reminding us that, after all, he’s Jay-Z and you’re not.
West is more desperate, transparent, awkward, vulnerable; he’s not nearly the MC that Jay-Z is, but still he aims for the stars, often shooting well beyond traditional hip-hop subject matter and production in his desire to make an impression. He is the one more likely to surprise and enrage these days, which makes him one of the most compelling figures in contemporary pop.
But on “Watch the Throne,” West must also defer, and this makes for a sometimes difficult partnership. The production is often stellar, favoring West’s soul-dusties sensibility, with snippets of James Brown, Otis Redding and Nina Simone. But it rarely takes the kind of chances West routinely takes on his solo albums. Instead, the idea is to create an album that lives up to its royal billing, a gilded collection of potential hits with lots of hooks and plenty of branding opportunities.
The tracks rely on an array of vocalists to supply hooks. Tellingly, the first vocal heard on the album is not from one of the two stars, but Odd Future’s Frank Ocean, who provides the foreboding intro to “No Church in the Wild.” Jay-Z and then West take turns describing a night of decadence that leaves “blood on the coliseum walls.” It’s an oddly unambitious start.
“Lift Off” follows, with Jay-Z’s other half, Beyonce, delivering a vocal that again feels disengaged. “Take it to the moon, take it to the stars, how many people you know get this far,” she sings. Please.
Coupled with the album’s recent single “Otis,” in which a sharp Redding sample is wasted on a vapid litany of product-placement shout-outs from West and Jay-Z extolling how rich they are, the album already is grossly out of touch with the summer of 2011. Both West and Jay-Z were vocal backers of Barack Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign, but now that America is struggling to regain its economic bearings, they rhyme about their private jets, expensive watches and supermodel escapades.
The album’s second half finds the duo expanding the scope of their concerns, at least touching on the difficulties of the African-American community. But inevitably the focus returns to the two icons. “I look in the mirror, my only opponent,” Jay-Z raps in “Welcome to the Jungle.” For “Murder to Excellence,” the two-part tale of destitution and dominance ends with you-know-who on top.
They were proudly “Made in America,” a track with another Frank Ocean vocal hook that celebrates their ability to get “a million hits” on a blog.
Their guard lowers momentarily on “New Day.” Over a handful of piano chords and a haunting soundscape from the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, Jay-Z and West hypothetically address their unborn sons. There is a poignant undertow, as they own up to missteps and disappointments. West gets off the album’s most darkly humorous lines, when he addresses his nationally televised remarks chastising President George W. Bush after the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005: “I might even make him be Republican, so that everyone know that he love white people,” he says of his unborn child.
The 2005 remarks turned West into a villain, a cast that he may never be able to shake off with a certain segment of America. But his knee-jerk response to the heart-breaking images from the New Orleans flooding spoke loudly for what many disenfranchised Americans were feeling at that moment, and inspired great art in return (the Legendary K.O.’s classic protest song, “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People").
In the last few days, West (and Jay-Z) inspired another powerful piece of protest music, when Public Enemy’s Chuck D uploaded the song “Notice: Know This” on his Web site in response to the bling-saturated lyrics of “Otis,” which play out over an explosive sample of Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.”
“Otis Redding was a humble country man from Macon, Ga., who bought a jet to work in, not flash,” Chuck D wrote. “He perished in that plane. Here’s to hoping that the J & K supergroup can elevate the masses and try a little bit more to reflect Otis heart rather than swag, because they’re too good to be less.”
Chuck D once called hip-hop “the black CNN,” and from Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel’s “The Message” through N.W.A.’s “(Expletive) the Police,” its self-regard always swaggered hand-in-hand with no-holds-barred street reporting. “This is our life,” these classic hip-hop tracks declared, “deal with it.”
In many ways, West and Jay-Z are saying something similar on their new album. But their approach is not to shine a spotlight on their community. Instead, they urge listeners to “watch the throne,” and gaze in awe on their good fortune.