The success of Watch the Throne is going to have to be defined by how each unique passenger of the vessel approaches the collaboration. Kanye West and Jay-Z are undoubtedly two of the most elite and in demand voices in rap (or pop music, or simply music in general), and if the focus is the music, the album will be defined by its sound. With production by the likes of West, Swizz Beatz, the RZA, 88 Keys and Q-Tip, there’s no shortage of talent behind the scenes to allow the songs to burst with excellence. But if looking below the glossy exterior, the perception of what the core of Watch the Throne is all about changes dramatically. “Doctors say I’m the illest ’cause I’m suffering from realness,” teases Kanye in “Niggas in Paris,” a track which was recorded in the extravagant Le Meurice Hotel in Paris, France. Keeping it real never appeared so luxurious.
But in the world of Jay-Z and Kanye West, that’s what keeping it real has become: it’s about how hard you can stunt and the excessive lengths which your posturing can reach, while still retaining an appearance of realness. As Jay continues in “Paris,” “What’s 50 grand to a muhfucka like me?… The Nets could go 0-82 and I look at you like this shit gravy.” Perhaps the chest-pounding is no more excessive than it is on the Otis Redding/James Brown-sampling “Otis,” with Jay further reaching toward tasteless extremes, “Photoshoot fresh, lookin’ like wealth, I’m ’bout to call the paparazzi on myself” while Kanye boasts “Luxury rap, the Hermes of verses/Sophisticated ignorance, write my curses in cursive.” In the world of The Throne this is the norm which is lived by, so of course it’s going to be a non-event when they brag of having “so many watches I need eight arms” as they do in “Who Gon Stop Me.” But what’s more is that this shift in belief is not only an expectation of the listener at this point, but of themselves: “I’m at the table/I’m gambling/Lucky lefty, I expect a seven/I went through hell, I’m expecting heaven/I’m owed, I’m throwed and I stuck to the G-code.”
The trouble isn’t in that this brand of living is the new elite standard, but that with every reminder of the duo’s swag comes an equally empty reminder of how it's deserved. In the Kanye-produced “Lift Off,” Beyonce‘s hook loops around the singer’s qualification that “you don’t know what we’ve been through to make it this far.” “Paris” finds Jay justifying his excesses, “If you escaped what I’ve escaped you’d be in Paris getting fucked up too.” Led by Frank Ocean’s hook, engineered for emotional appeal, the duo continue to expound on their life lessons in the track, while reconfirming just how in touch with the world they still are in “Gotta Have It,” despite having “Maybachs on bachs on bachs on bachs,” Yeezy adds “I remain Chi-town,” and Jay, “Brooklyn till I die.” And while he might be living lavishly, Kanye’s quick to remind us how hard Chicago still rolls (“And I’m from the murder capital/Where they murder for capital/Heard about at least three killings this afternoon”) which somehow adds further to his realness, if only by proximity.
If that contrast weren’t difficult enough to digest, Watch the Throne is ripe with plenty of other twists, turns, and inevitable Kanye-isms. Without even touching on Holocaust allusions (“Who Gon Stop Me”), the duo both lean on race to combat feelings of insecurity and perceived artistic injustice: Kanye accuses “white America” of character assassination in “Gotta Have It” while Jay preaches how they need to “put some colored girls in the MOMA” in “That’s My Bitch,” adding, “I mean Marilyn Monroe, she’s quite nice/But why all the pretty icons always all-white?” The RZA co-produced “New Day” takes an odd turn as both Jay and Ye speak to their future children, attempting to steer them toward private paths of happiness long before their birth, while still finding ways to be casually venomous, “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 ‘em be Republican/So everybody know he love white people.” A faint shadow of poetry appears in the Swizz Beatz-produced “Welcome to the Jungle” as Jay looks back at the inescapable lows which still find a way to drown out the successes, “Work pots and pans just to come me some Airs/My uncle died, my daddy did too/Paralyzed by pain I can barely move/My nephew gone, my heard is torn/Sometimes I look to the sky, ask why I was born/My faith in God, every day is hard/Every night is worst, that’s why I pray so hard.” But cast among such a focused body of self-congratulatory work, the feigned sensitivity is washed away by wave after wave of empty boasting by the braggadocious tag-team.
For the numerous basketball related references that pass by throughout Watch the Throne, it’s interesting to follow how the two solo performers do in fact end up working together as a team on the album. But as Grantland’s Hua Hsu explained in his take on the album, this ability to co-exist shouldn’t be viewed as an immediate sign of greatness.
"Instead of competition, we now live in a culture that produces mutually beneficial agreements. Instead of rivals there are dream teams, talents taken around the globe in the name of common goals, brand visions, the quid pro quo backslap culture of “liking” and retweeting. Instead of a guy emerging from a bench-clearing brawl with his arm dislocated, we have the Miami Heat and their ‘Big Three.’ By most accounts, this is a far preferable way to live… But it doesn’t necessarily make for more interesting art."Not unlike the “Big Three,” Watch the Throne finds Kanye and Jay bringing out an unusual side in each other, kicking back and basking in their collective glow, examining their successes, congratulating one another on sticking to the “G-code” and making a point to reference how selfless they’ve been in helping the less fortunate along the way, despite continually remaining targets themselves (which covers the lyrical basis of “Why I Love You,” the Cassius-sampling track which might be one of the musical highlights on the release). But this is far more blatant than “Big Pimpin’” ever was, instead portraying the pair as insiders looking back out over a world that they are no longer in touch with; their reference points so far changed that their extreme stories of success have become folklore championing the “everyman” within their circles. Illuminati? No need. What’s the use of a secret society when you can live and breathe your creed out in the public, documenting your own personal new world order in plain sight, painting it gold, and shelving it exclusively at a big box retailer where fans will still inevitably line up in droves, hard-earned cash in hands to see their reflection in its faux-metallic cover?
Well, if you’re approaching Watch the Throne from that perspective, the album might not present itself with quite the same value that it otherwise would. But at least it sounds tight.