Individually, they are Kanye West and Jay-Z. But together, collaboratively, the two biggest rappers in the world are to be known as The Throne. Their album is called ‘Watch The Throne’, but they needn’t make such demands: the world has been waiting with baited breath for some time now, wanting to know what they’ve come up with.
The pair themselves are aware of the mountainous expectation. At the playback in New York’s Planetarium last Monday, Jay-Z explained that the album took nine months to complete, and went through three incarnations. They started recording in the UK’s very own Bath, then progressed to Paris, Australia (at Russell Crowe’s house, no less), New York and Los Angeles. There are recent rumours that the pair are barely even speaking, but if their looks at each other throughout the playback (and Kanye’s dancing) are anything to go by, they’re both extremely happy with the results.
And for certain: it is a gigantic blockbuster of a hip hop album. The album goes live on August 8, but until then here’s a track-by-track to keep you going.
‘No Church In The Wild’
A suitably bombastic opener, produced by Kanye with assistance from 88 Keys. A slow lumbering groove, with the hook the first of two provided by Odd Future’s Frank Ocean. His words – “What’s a king to a God/A God to a non-believer who don’t believe in anything?” – are an early indicator that this is an album that will deal with big, serious themes. Although having said that, it also finds Kanye talking about sniffing cocaine off models: “Coke on black skin got her looking like a zebra/I call that shit jungle fever”.
Following the first of three brief instrumental interludes, here comes Beyoncé, bearing another large hook: “We gonna take it to the moon, take it to the stars / How many people you know who can take it this far?”. At the playback, pummelled into submission by gigantic speakers and images of asteroids colliding with Saturn above, it was hard not to concede that the answer to this question is “no-one”. “I’m such a show off!” Kanye raps, obviously, at one point. Jay’s verse is better. At one point there’s an actual astronaut countdown to lift off. Co-produced by Kanye with Q-Tip and Jeff Bhasker and Don Jazzy and Mike Dean. Takes a lot of people to sound this big, you see.
‘Niggas In Paris’
This one samples a line of Will Ferrel’s dialogue from 2007 geek-ball comedy ‘Blades Of Glory’: “No one knows what it means / But it’s provocative.” According to Jay-Z, this was Kanye’s idea, suggesting he may have a sense of humour about this whole thing, because this is an album that is definitely more about bluster than anything else. “I know I’m about to kill it,” Jay raps at one point.
The preview track, so maybe you know this one (listen below if you don’t), Features Kanye sampling ‘A Little Tenderness’. Too obvious? This is the man who pilfered ‘Move On Up’ by Curtis Mayfield!
‘Gotta Have It’
Utilising some Arabic scales, this is The Neptunes’ sole contribution to the album, and it’s one of their best productions in ages, too. “LOLOLOL, white America / Assassinate my character” runs the opening line. The first of three tunes to mention – and address – “black on black violence”. One of the best tunes on here, possibly because it isn’t trying to hard to live up to the album’s gargantuan billing.
Another quite obvious sample (Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’), but weaved with much more subtlety – RZA co-produces – than ‘Otis’ into a great song about how Kanye and Jay-Z will go on to treat their as-yet-unborn sons. Jay repeats several times: “My dad left me and I promised I would never repeat that”; Kanye is more specific, saying “I’ll never let him leave his college girlfriend / And get caught up in the groupies and the whirlwind”. Later he ponders that he’ll “maybe even be a Republican”. Easy now, Kanye!
Formerly known as ‘That’s My Bitch’, and featuring La Roux on the hook. Also features Bon Iver in the writing credits, though it’s not clear what his contribution is. An old school feel plus samples of Public Enemy’s ‘Brothers Gonna Work It Out’ and ‘Apache’ make this well worth a listen, which you can do below (to an earlier version, at least).
‘Welcome To The Jungle’
Sadly not a cover of Guns N’Roses, although Jay does mention Axl in one of his verses, as well as dear departed MJ: “Rest in peace to the leader of the Jackson 5”. Produced by Swizz Beatz.
‘Who Gon Stop Me’
Proof that there are ears open to new musical trends comes here, with a sample from UK dubstep producer Flux Pavillion’s ‘I Can’t Stop’. Finds Jay namechecking Pablo Picasso and also boasting: “Black car, black bra, black strap / You know what that’s for”. The biggest-but-least-beautiful tune on here.
‘Murder To Excellence’
Actually two songs spliced together, the first of which finds the topic of black on black murder (rhymed here with “pay-per-view murder”) being revisited, with Jay rapping that “it’s time to redefine black power”. Then switches seamlessly into a self-proclaimed “celebration of black excellence”, in which Kanye tells us “I stink of success”.
‘Made In America’
The second appearance of Frank Ocean, and a nauseatingly earnest one, in which he eulogises Sweet Father Joseph, Sweet Queen Betty, Sweet Brother Malcolm, Sweet Baby Jesus and other sweetie Godlike types over AOR synths. Kanye tells us how he gets “a million hits and the web crashes”. Co-written by Shama Joseph, who was responsible for Rhianna’s ‘Man Down’.
‘Why I Love You’
And it all comes to a close with this melodramatic slowie, which finds Jay-Z insisting “I try to teach niggers to be kings” over a tune based heavily on Cassius’ ‘I Love You So’, which you can hear below.
A blockbuster album that lives up to its billing for certain, with a giant cast of best-in-the-business types all firing on all cylinders. But, like great blockbusters in general, ‘Watch The Throne’ is more impressive than it is lovable. In fact, it’s so rich-people-preaching-without-really-offering-any-solutions in places that it sort of makes you feel that this is as big and as establishment as hip hop can get, and that maybe it’s time for hip hop’s Sex Pistols to come in from nowheresville and completely reject the old order. A brilliant album, but one that will stop traffic momentarily rather than change lives.