When I first heard that the new Jay-Z and Kanye West collaboration was going to be called “Watch the Throne,” I laughed. What gall. The title of the album was strikingly confident — even for these two. “We are the kings,” they are saying. “Hip-hop is ours.” And they may be right, at least as far as album and ticket sales are concerned. But, after setting themselves upon such a high perch, this mediocre effort might convert braggadocio into warning. Watch the throne, gentlemen; it’s not going to be yours forever.
All of this business began with a seemingly interminable delay for a release. And, now, seemingly interminable delays for the start of a tour (including a canceled date at Denver’s Pepsi Center). Jay-Z and West surprised us all with an iTunes release of “Watch the Throne” this week and, to their credit, largely avoided leaks. In doing so, they created what must now be known as a “Radiohead moment,” when most of the music fans in the country are all more or less listening to one album.
Still, that wait — which figures into a larger, negligent hip-hop schemata that, as I’ve said before, is wearing thin — set the record a step back. If it’s taking this long, the thinking goes, then it better be great. It’s not. It’s not terrible, either, but it’s largely a mess. Mixing idioms, too many cooks have spoiled a half-baked broth.
“Watch the Throne” begins with ambitions fittingly lofty, “No Church in the Wild” something of a philosophical and theological treatise from the duo with help from Odd Future associate Frank Ocean. Ocean’s soulful refrain is a welcome bond; the track is a solid beginning and we even get an over-the-top Kanye quote. Imagining himself a religious leader, he commands all “to never fuck nobody without telling me.”
It segues into what amounts to a Beyonce song (“Lift Off”) with a cliched conceit: It’s a space song. Apologies to David Bowie, Elton John and Peter Schilling are in order. (If that’s not enough, Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield, both prominently featured on “Watch the Throne,” might be proverbially turning over down below.) It’s a telling tune: Who, exactly, is running the show, here? Kanye? Jay-Z? His wife? Mrs. Z aside, the whole affair begins to smell like two wiz kids who teamed up for the science fair only to hastily collide and make a volcano that doesn’t erupt.
The cliches become Ambien tired — believe it or not, basketball has been rapped about before and, Kanye, did you really just try to sneak another “South Park” slam into a song? But they are especially frustrating when related to the personalities of the editors-in-chief. On “Otis,” Hova starts talking about his cash flow and on the following song, “Gotta Have It,” Kanye accuses: “White America, assassinate my character.” Sigh. Okay, we get it: Jay-Z has deep pockets and West an even deeper ego. No need to get stuck on the same treadmill setting or even go as far as extending it to an imagined next generation on “New Day.”
“Niggas in Paris” is a microcosm of the whole record, an excellent Kanye-style bounce beat combined with a disappointing showcase of his and Jay-Z’s (superior) rhyming abilities. It’s extremely confused. At one point, the bewilderment is acknowledged with a tongue-in-cheek sample from the long-forgotten film, “Blades of Glory.” Jon Heder’s character, seemingly responding to a particularly nonsensical Kanye line, says to Will Ferrell’s, “I don’t even know what that means.” It’s one of the most WTF moments in recent pop music and we are left puzzled, too, drowning in the amalgam. When Kanye ends the song by repeatedly saying, “Don’t let me get in my zone,” he’s begging for it: No, get in your zone! Please find a zone (as he did on last year’s wonderful “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”) and stay focused.
The schizophrenia is no surprise as “Watch the Throne” was recorded sporadically, in tour stops and various other meet-ups, across the world. It’s still a thrill to hear Jay-Z’s adolescent liveliness spar vocally with Kanye’s smirking insolence, but it can’t carry a truly lousy song like “That’s My Bitch,” an overwrought and jumbled disaster. “Made in America” seems a reflective yet misguided attempt at duplicating Jay-Z’s geocentric “Empire State of Mind” success. But, there’s no theme, no straightforward connection to be found in the melee.
The last song on the record, “Why I Love You,” is the album’s best. Jay-Z is finally allowed to run free, letting loose the juggernaut rhymes we’ve come to expect. The Cassius sample is inspired, at once obscure and poppy. (Think Can on Kanye’s “Drunk and Hot Girls.”) On the deluxe edition, it’s followed by some decent bonus tracks including the hilariously entitled “Illest Motherfucker Alive.” Here, the dessert tastes better than the main course.
Still, it’s not enough to make up for the preceding Bassomatic-level concotion. Jay-Z and Kanye West ask the titular question on “Who Gon Stop Me” repeatedly. The answer is obvious: Surely, nobody else currently in the game. But, especially with all the talk of their respective legacies herein, they’d better watch out for themselves to do just that.