Review: Watch The Throne – Jay-Z & Kanye West

Legacy. Race. Sex. Excess. Gluttonously sick beats. A bacchanal of depth, decadence and vanity. Just what we expected.

Johnny Firecloudby Johnny Firecloud

As everyone with eardrums expected, Watch The Throne possesses all the glory and gaudy gluttony of two kings, the two most iconic Hip-Hop figures of our generation who no longer have a need for dreams as commoners experience them. Kanye West and Jay-Z have lived the fantasies of millions, and revel fully in the knowledge that they epitomize modern day living legends as they help lay the foundation for the future of music.

With melodrama on high and an appetite for spirited lyrical one-uppery, Hova and Yeezy swing for the fences while backed by a tapestry of production contributors including Neptunes, Swizz Beatz, Mr. Hudson, No I.D., RZA, Q-Tip, Lex Luger and Frank Ocean, with newcomers Hit-Boy, Southside, Symbolic One turning in efforts as well. More often than not, they succeed in Grammy-baiting fashion.

When we first heard the Lex Luger-produced "H.A.M." in January and recent single "Otis" (watch the Spike Jonze-directed video) the Throne critiques hit overdrive, zeroing in on the layered sound and endless money talk. But beneath the casual condemnation of the excess we all knew was coming (did anyone really expect songs about Darfur?), the full release reveals a deep thread of social deconstruction and poignant personal contemplations that weaves throughout.

There are few major singalong choruses on Watch The Throne, opting instead for a deep-driven boom-bap throb swagger, framing dueling tales of come-ups, conquests and the sweet, sweet luxury of the elite. The lyrical prowess runs white-hot through an epic gamut, immediately from the album's ominous opening line (from "No Church In The Wild): "Tears on the mausoleum floor…" onward.

A deep-swing groove outlines a night-drive sleekness and danger to the opener, while Frank Ocean' Mos-Def-meets-John-Legend choral line "What's a mob to a king?" rings an interesting bell in the face of the churning Arab Spring – when it was specifically mobs who overturned their equivalent kings.

Stylistically, Throne is a career diversion for Jay, while for Kanye it's a sensible continuation of his 2010-topping last album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Truth be told, WTT doesn't possess the same high hit-to-dud ratio as Dark Fantasy, though it serves as more of an explained celebration than the artistic purpose behind MBDTF. Both MCs are in top form, clearly invigorated by each other's competitive streak and set on an airtight course for excellence.

West's approach to braggadocio and women is far different from Jay's, however; where Ye will aggressively flaunt his wares and women as conquered accessories, Hova has a collected approach – he's got the hottest girl in the game on his arm, she's independently wealthy, and it's a major markup for his brand. He needs not aggrandize the facts. It's an interesting juxtaposition, given that Kanye's a superstar still on a rocket trajectory of quality releases, while his counterpart has had streaks of mediocrity in the past half-decade despite an endless streak of platinum. As added flavor, West's menace and amplified post-Taylor-Swift-incident insecurity extends into several tracks, clearly marking him the stag MC in the group (and yes, he's still hung up on that South Park thing).

There's a darkness in the diamond, however, a grounded core in which regrets and loneliness punctuate the floss, as paranoia frills the meat of braggadocio. The mood often fits as a middlepoint between Kanye's 808s and Heartbreak and Dark Fantasy, a piss-on-the-devil defiance and confidence with orchestrally lush production and grandiosity that serves well to frame a tale in which there's an unseen price tag for every Maybach – one that goes beyond the bank accounts and bling. Over "New Day"'s RZA-driven psychedelia groove and Nina Simone sample, the two rappers express concern for the future of their sons; Kanye lays out his hindsight regrets through the lens of influencing his unsprung offspring, rhyming: "And I'll never let my son have an ego / He'll be nice to everyone, wherever we go / I mean, I might even make him be Republican / So everybody know he love white people“. Around the bend, Jay-Z’s moment matches the heartbreak: “Sorry junior, I already ruined ya / Cause you ain’t even alive, paparazzi pursuin’ ya / Sins of a father make your life 10 times harder”.

Under a wash of piano and autotune, synths and guitars, Jay's well-worn tales of his father abandoning him resurface as a reminder of the catalyst for the character and the sensitivity beneath the bravado; that early rejection & abandonment made the maestro we're enjoying now, born of the hustler wise enough to learn from the streets he was gaming. After all, superheroes tend to rise from trauma, not comfort. Sean Carter is clearly the better spitter on the record, a more seasoned rhymer with narratives Kanye can't quite get past himself enough to top, and one wonders how each man's most prominent loss – Jay of his father, Kanye of his mother (who died of plastic surgery complications in 2007) – impacted their approach to the dueling lyrical intimacy.

Should we feel sympathy for two men who have it all, and then some? Absolutely not. But their relatable human struggles make for compelling musical theatrics, and particularly aided by the melancholy interlude at "New Day"'s outro (as well as several others), follow-up bouncer "That's My Bitch" arrives like a cattle prod jolt to the gut. Deep final-level synths and a razor's edge flow by Ye get the heads nodding before a commanding hook: "I've been waiting for a long, long time… just to get off and throw my hands up high". Jay ties it up in the final 90 seconds, but the load's been blown; he's just the finishing polish on this one. It's a hard-hitting classic in the making, despite years of premature leaks.

The album doesn't attempt to be everything to everybody, but like the Bruno Mars-featured "Lighters" on Eminem & Royce da 5'9"s new Bad Meets Evil album, the missteps are distracting and a glaring ill fit for the album's entirety. The chief offender is the Beyoncé-overloaded "Lift Off" – in which Jay's wife is too prominently featured in the mix, her "take it to the moon, take it to the stars" hook too recurrent to be anything more than irritating. The New York high-life grandiosity makes a fine touchstone, but only momentarily – particularly in the associative mind which knows that it's Bey flaunting on the track rather than some breathy chanteuse trying to make a name for herself. Maybe the real is just a little too real. 

The biggest heart and contender for best of them all, "Made In America," is a bittersweet soft-slug dedication to the come-up, Kanye documenting the struggles of "getting high off my own supply," as in giving beats everyone wants to Jay-Z and rapping over ones he could be selling to others for big finance. Jay steps in hard with an "oh shit! Rewind that!" rhyme depicting tales of Grandma's banana pudding and cooking up the goods in her kitchen while she sleeps. The life stories are told over plinking keys and soft-thud beats before Frank Ocean unfolds his mournful tribute to "Sweet King Martin" and "Sweet Queen Coretta," among others, in the chorus. This one's special, a perfect mix of sentimentality, autobiographical depiction and butter flow. Ocean makes one hell of a mark for a second time, and this album is enough to set his resume on the A-list track for life.

Watch The Throne is a bacchanal of depth, decadence and vanity, an album that 2011 will be remembered for. Two rap kingpins have managed to both throttle and rein their gargantuan egos and supreme grandiosity, resulting in a largely fantastic body of work over a fittingly decadent sonic mural shaped by far-reaching contributors. In other words, Jay-Z and Kanye have something new to brag about. 

CraveOnline Rating: 8 out of 10