I really don’t like Lebron James.
I think he really took the easy way out. He was scared to risk never winning a title. Didn’t want the responsibility. But let’s be fair – the guy made it to within two games of winning an NBA championship in his first year with his new team, but we act like the Heat went 4-78. But don’t you get the feeling that even if he had won, it wouldn’t have been enough? They would’ve questioned why it took seven games to close them out. Or why didn’t he score more points in the fourth quarter. Or say that it really doesn’t count because he didn’t have to face Kobe. It’s a no-win situation.
Welcome to Watch the Throne.
See, on a sports team, if you take one great player and add him to a team that has another, that equals two great players. Music doesn’t quite work that way. Artists don’t add on to each other, they merge and create an entirely new entity. I feel that many people had the perspective of “well Jay’s albums are great, and Kanye’s albums are great, so this one needs to be twice as good as those”. Michael Jackson couldn’t work with Prince and create an album twice as good as Thriller. Each album is it’s own artistic expression. A painting isn’t twice as good as another painting. Unlike the results in sports, musical greatness isn’t tangible.
*Sidenote: Also, I’ll refrain from the basic track-by-track type review. AllHipHop.com posted one about eight minutes after the album was released, so you can go there or to the hundred other sites that sum up a song with a quick recap, (ie. Yeezy and Hov rap about their unborn sons on the RZA-produced New Day) instead of offering an actual opinion about the album. My feeling is, you’ve already heard the songs by now, most likely, so you don’t need me to tell you what they’re about.
Having said all that, let me say that this is a very difficult album to rate because something like this has never really been done before. Two urban artists still at their peak (Jay maybe not at his lyrical peak, but certainly at the peak of his worldwide popularity), combining to create a single piece of work. Jay has attempted this- twice actually – with R. Kelly, to mixed results.
And that’s where I’ll begin the music portion of this review. The immediate difference between Watch the Throne and Best of Both Worlds is the cohesiveness of the album. While Jay and R were emailing sessions back and forth and completing the music from a distance, Jay and Kanye approached this in an old school fashion – they actually recorded it together.
*Sidenote pt. 2: I’m fully aware that flying to Paris and having studios set up in NYC hotel suites isn’t exactly ‘old school’, but I’m trying to make a point.
And that’s the first thing I noticed while listening to the album. Neither artist sounded out of place. Each had their own moments to shine. They traded back and forth lines a few times throughout the albums, and sometimes started their verse where the other left off, and for the most part stayed on topic. It never felt to me like a Jay-Z album featuring Kanye or a Kanye album featuring Jay-Z – although Kanye’s stamp is going to naturally be on it a bit more since he was also involved in much of the production. It truly felt like a Jay-Z & Kanye West album. It was a new sound, albeit blending familiar styles from each artist. It’s quite an accomplishment, as the album could’ve easily fell into a Blueprint 4 or My Dark Twisted Fantasy 2 type feel. Though I will say that Jay would’ve never have made this album without Kanye’s influence, as Jay enjoys much more straight-forward music. But wasn’t that the point of doing a joint album? Jay convinced Kanye to scale back a bit and Kanye got Jay to experiment.
They also did something that another group of solo artists who came together to create an album couldn’t do – they kept the songs fresh and didn’t fall into a predictable pattern. One of the biggest flaws with the Slaughterhouse self-titled album was the lack of creativity. It was all four rapping on just about every song – four long verses – usually started and ended by the same people, with few exceptions. It was almost as if nobody in the group had the leadership skill to step in and cut somebody’s verse from a song or tell someone they aren’t going to be on a particular track. It was like everybody had to have equal time. Rapping and creating music are completely different skill sets.
Jay and Kanye didn’t fall into this trap, despite being two of the genre’s greatest artists. Egos could’ve easily gotten in the way. They didn’t though. They never felt like they were competing. It felt like music.
By the way – in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I’m a huge fan of both Jay and Kanye. Having said that, if my wife released a wack album next week, believe that I’d be the first one to post a review bashing the shit out of it. I don’t let personal feelings bleed into my journalistic integrity.
There were a lot of clever, tongue-in-cheek lines that can easily go over some listeners’ heads. They have such a nonchalant and flippant delivery that it sometimes seems as if they aren’t saying much at all. I’d actually suggest printing out some of these lyrics from www.ohhla.com and reading along. They’re actually saying some shit. They aren’t Lupe-caliber lyrics, but they aren’t trying for that. This album isn’t for people who study words, it’s for people who enjoy music. Just enough lyrics to keep the heavy hip-hop heads interested, but simple enough that the casual fan can appreciate and enjoy.
For artists who have together created such depth in their records as This Can’t Be Life, there’s a certain disappointment in the fact that they couldn’t expose themselves more. They talked plenty about the pitfalls of being rich and famous, but I often get the feelings that the authors of Hey Mama and Regrets could’ve crafted up a few more conceptual masterpieces if they weren’t so engulfed in taking over the world. There were also no clear cut, monster singles like Empire State of Mind.
The production was definitely a high point for the album. If you listen to the album once and send it to the recycle bin, you’re doing yourself a disservice. These are new sounds, not what you’re used to hearing. Because of that, it’s easy to dismiss it as “weak”. But these are some really incredible backdrops. The precision, the originality – and man, does it sound great in a top notch sound system! Professional (and aspiring non-professional) engineers and producers will really appreciate the level of detail in the beats. The mixing was top-notch, as one would expect. The drums, the bass lines, everything knocked. The beats were very creative and different from the current sound. That’s a good thing in the long term, but will turn some closed-minded people off early. It isn’t there fault – it’s how this generation of hip-hop fans were raised. We’re all about the Rick Ross style of repeating the same things that have worked over and over.
Watch the Throne had a nice variety of topics. Yes, Jay and Ye are rich, and they’re going to talk about being rich. Just as 50 Cent will talk about being gangster, Lupe will talk about being political, Mos Def will talk about being underground, and Rihanna will talk about enjoying candle wax being dripped on her handcuffed, naked body during sex. It’s part of their persona, part of who they are. To ignore it would be straying from their actual lives. But there is a good amount of subject matter as well. By now, you already know they have a song talking about their unborn sons, etc.. There is a lot of humility mixed in with the bravado. There’s also a lot of wittiness.
I have this weird thing about me. See, I actually appreciate when artists take chances and make music that expands beyond their comfort zone. Jay and Kanye could’ve easily made 12 versions of the Pete Rock produced Joy (which is actually one of my favorite records) and called it a day. And guess what? It probably would’ve been a great album. There are a lot of people who would’ve even liked it better than the current iteration. It would’ve been the safe choice. So Appalled works. Who Gon Stop Me takes some imagination.
I felt the same way about 808s & Heartbreaks when it came out. Kanye could’ve built off the success of Graduation and made a similar sounding Graduation 2 and had a smash. Instead, he chose to follow his artistic vision and create something new. Whether you liked 808s or not is an entirely different blog post. Same with Blueprint 2. The easy thing would’ve been to create 12 more soulful, jazzy songs. Instead, BP2 had an entirely different sound. Jay once said “Niggaz want my old shit? Buy my old albums”. And unlike most fans in this cookie-cutter, “do-what-already-works”, scared to take chances, “Maybach Music” era of hip-hop, I actually appreciate artists who take risks.
So overall, how do I feel about Watch the Throne? I think it’s a great album. It isn’t hip-hop’s Thriller. It isn’t Going to cure cancer. Nor will it make everybody else stop rapping. It wasn’t Blueprints 1-3 plus Graduation multiplied by infinity, like some people were unrealistically expecting. If you just judge it as an album and not put it head to head with the Old Testament, you’ll realize it is filled with tremendous songs. New Day and No Church in the Wild were probably my favorite tracks. Welcome to the Jungle, Niggas in Paris, Murder to Excellence, Made in America and Why I Love You were also amazing records. Try to find another album that has this many consistently strong songs. Otis and That’s My Bitch were heard prior to the release and those were also great additions. It’s difficult for me to find much fault with the album. Lyrically? This isn’t Reasonable Doubt. But it’s not supposed to be. This album wasn’t aimed towards the hustlers. It was geared towards a much larger audience. Nas has way too much life experience to ever recreate illmatic, so why hold Jay’s newer projects up against what he did as a fresh-faced kid in the mid-90s?
If you’re looking for strictly lyrics? Try a Skyzoo album (though Sky actually has great production too). Amazing stuff there. If you want just beats? Go with the last Rick Ross album. If you want something fresh and new? Give WTT a good listen.
Speaking of which – how come Rick Ross’ album was considered one of the best hip-hop albums of 2010, despite lame, unrealistic subject matter, copycat hooks and re-used beat ideas, yet Jay and Ye, despite having many different topics and sounds, are being hated on for talking about money on some of their songs. Unlike Ross, they actually have money (and have had for some time), so it’s at least believable.
Also, a huge kudos to Mike Dean and that entire staff for keeping this under wraps. It’s the first album in years that I’ve actually had the pleasure of anticipating and listening front to back, the way it was supposed to be heard. No leaks, no freestyles, no “not-quite-good-enough-for-the-album” throw-aways. I’ve been standing on my soapbox for years screaming against releasing subpar music just for the sake of exposure. This was refreshing. Reminded me of the days I’d wait on line (not online) on Monday night at Tower Records or Virgin Megastores awaiting a new release.
Could it have been better? Of course. What album couldn’t have. I felt the Beyonce assisted “Life Off” was far from special. I have nothing against those types of records, they just didn’t execute it well. With the exception of Crazy in Love, Jay and Bey’s chemistry on records just isn’t great. The sequencing on the album was good overall, with the exception of the aforementioned, which sounded out of place in between the incredible No Church and Niggaz in Paris. Jay didn’t sound quite as comfortable as normal, as Kanye really stepped up and put himself as a definite “1A” to Jay-Z’s “1”. Little Brother is as close to being an equal as he ever was. The only thing he’s lacking now is his own Reasonable Doubt. Not only was Kanye not overmatched lyrically, but he owned some of these records. Though he might’ve had a slightly better performance overall, he definitely did more to add to Jay’s legacy and GOAT claim. This successful collaboration was yet another accomplishment in Jay’s storied career. Kanye is trailing, but not by as much as he was just a few years ago. Though Kanye has more than established his own career, this might be considered a serious “coming out” party (pause if necessary), as he really hung line for line with hip-hop’s greatest living legend.
By the way – Welcome to the Jungle has the potential to be a huge record.
Top to bottom, it’s an extremely solid effort from two of rap’s best. I think they definitely laid the groundwork for a WTT 2. Other artists need to pay attention and learn from what they have created instead of attempting to compete or copy. Also, fans should really show a little respect. Hip-hop is full of copycats. Not to pick on Self-Made, but that’s a great example of the “paint-by-numbers” albums that are often released today. Take a successful formula and copy it 15 times until you have a hit. Jay and ‘Ye didn’t create 15 versions of Power. They took a chance. Whether you like the music or not, you should at least respect the fact that a few artists are still unafraid to delve into uncharted territory.
If I believed in ratings, I’d probably give Watch the Throne somewhere around an 8.75/10. Better than most of what’s out today, but not quite the hip-hop bible that people were hoping for (or rooting against, in many cases).
Favorite tracks: New Day, No Church in the Wild, Welcome to the Jungle, Murder to Excellence
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