If you’re one of those people who doesn’t know about Watch the Throne, I’d also like to catch you up on anything else you might have missed: The Earth revolves around the sun, washing your hands can help reduce the spread of bacteria, and the Union won the Civil War. Yes, after a long history of successful collaborations, Kanye West and Jay-Z formed the supergroup The Throne, tapped the likes of Frank Ocean and Beyoncé to collaborate, and recorded a 12-track effort that, upon its release this past Monday, whipped the Internet into a frenzy. Beyond the hype and the gobs of media attention, Watch the Throne turns out to be a success, even if it isn’t the landscape-altering LP the world had hoped for like a new bike from Santa Claus (oh, he’s not real either, FYI).
Perhaps one of the downfalls of the album is that it doesn’t meet the known universe’s shared insanely high expectations. Unlike a band made up of the unknown half of Fall Out Boy, The Throne is comprised of two of the most important MCs of the last 20 years. And while meeting the demands of fans shouldn’t really be a criteria for how great a record is, when you’re dealing with two of hip-hop’s biggest stars– two dudes who throughout their entire individual careers have wowed audiences and permanently changed the rap game– anything less than a home run is unacceptable. By listening to this album, you almost get the idea that they knew the pressure they were under, which better informs their decision to rest on the laurels of West’s smash hit My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
There’s no denying that West’s Fantasy was a huge album, thanks to its dedication to artistic exploration and its skewing of the tendencies of mainstream rap. As progressive and impactful as Jay-Z is, adding his more populist leanings and aesthetics to Ye’s Crock-Pot of cracked ideas simply waters down the spirit of creating something entirely new. What we’re left with, then, are tracks like the utterly boring “Lift Off”, with some of the most derivative lyrics on the whole album (like Beyoncé’s “You don’t know what we been through to make it this far/So many scars/‘Bout to take this whole thing to Mars” or West’s “Lift off, takin’ my coat off/Showin’ my tattoos/I’m such a showoff”), and a totally uninspired vocal performance from Queen B to boot. Of course, even that disaster pales in comparison to a track like “Otis”. Despite its well-received status, the track is sort of the pinnacle of just how disorganized and sloppy the album can be. The beat and sample aren’t well done, appealing, or an appropriate homage. Here, even the lyrical output of Jay-Z, who is clearly the far superior lyricist, sounds forced: “I invented swag/Poppin’ bottles, putting supermodels in the cab/Proof/I guess I got my swagger back.” The song as a whole feels unfinished, rushed, and strung together for the sake of having a clearly identifiable hit amongst some of the other offerings.
However, that’s not to say that pulling out some tricks from the Fantasy playbook isn’t a good idea, especially when they help create tracks like “No Church in the Wild” and “Made in America”. The former has all the artsy trimmings (Frank Ocean’s perfectly stirring, existential chorus and a vaguely bangin’ yet abstract beat), but West and Hov, beyond the actual lyrical constructs offered up, simply sound more menacing, dangerous, and evocative than anywhere else on the LP. The latter continues that emotional high, weaving a tale of the rise of black culture in the U.S. and celebrating struggle and success with a tiny, minimalist beat that’s hugely sweeping from an emotional standpoint. At the end of the day, these cuts feel far too close to the work of Fantasy (especially in tapping a West-ian artistic maverick in Ocean). Simply put, they’re disappointing in any long-term sense of artistic merit. Instead, they’re more responsible for further recalling the feeling that the album isn’t up to snuff with the usual caliber of its two aces.
Even with the disappointing efforts, there are other cuts on this album that still prove that this was a fruitful record overall. On one end, there’s the simplicity of “Why I Love You”. Thanks to a Mr. Hudson chorus, one that sounds like it could be right at home on a Blakroc album, it’s an intoxicating jam. It also happens to be where Jay-Z is at his best, lyrically (“Fuck you squares/The circle got smaller/The castle got bigger/The walls got taller/And truth be told after all that said/Niggas still got love for you”). It’s also the one song where the proper West-Z dynamic is achieved to create the record’s best song. Jay-Z sits at the lyrical focus, and West plays support, leaving time and energy for Ye to focus on the beat like the dominant producer he is. The cut is also one of the few moments on the album where Hov’s mainstream tendencies and Ye’s art-rap styles blend without limiting or distracting the other, a pitfall that lead to the album’s other, slightly more ineffective moments. “New Day” and “That’s My Bitch”, the two other synergistic moments, range from old-school West beats with a twist of newfound intricacy to a beat that is something beyond the others entirely (and yet still familiar), with a matching lyrical ferociousness. While the mismatches outnumber the strengths on Watch the Throne, these songs are a clear indicator that they’ve worked together so often for a reason, and it’s a relationship made to last.
Maybe it would have been better if none of us really knew this effort was being released (if that were even possible, nowadays). Perhaps announcing it and letting fans mull over the pair’s history and skills, not to mention our own preconceived notions and larger-than-life hopes, are what made the album feel merely impressive and not world-shattering (as if that weren’t good enough). That only speaks to a larger point, possibly the most dire and pressing point of the entire album, and the experience leading up to it: Humans are fallible creatures, and failure is always going to happen, even to our biggest and brightest. Nothing can be accomplished, though, if someone doesn’t stand up and act as the new gold standard. Kanye West and Jay-Z have proven themselves to be, at the very least, kings of just that notion.