“Big? Oh, it’s big alright. The blockbuster hip hop album to end all blockbuster hip hop albums, no question.” So run the first words of NME‘s Hamish Macbain’s 7/10 magazine review of ‘Watch The Throne’, which, in case you need reminding, is the first official manifestation of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s long-running circle jerk.
So, is this the ego-bolstering masterwork that Yeezy and Jay are capable of? It certainly balances the fun moments with the serious business, reckons Hamish: “Kanye raps about how he’s so unbelievably big as an artist that he crashes the internet all the time, sniffing cocaine off models (“Coke on black skin got her striped like a zebra / I call that jungle fever”), how he’s not going to let his kids “get caught up in the groupies and the whirlwind”. Jay, on the other hand, raps about his grandma’s banana pie, asks “why all the famous icons are white?” and insists he’s “trying to teach niggers how to be kings”. That mix of knowing self-aggrandising and social responsibility makes for an album that’s “undeniably impressive” – “The only problem being that, like most things that are undeniably impressive, it’s hard to really love.”
However, those over at Guardian/Observer HQ have found plenty to love in ‘Watch The Throne’, with Observer critic Kitty Empire awarding the record 4/5, and writing, “It’s better than West’s last, impressive album, ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’. With fantastically varied production, ‘Watch The Throne’ marches hungrily forward, belying its genesis in a series of swanky hotel rooms.” Guardian music critic Alexis Petridis seems tickled by the record, commenting that the appearance of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon “gives listeners the chance to enjoy the improbable sound of the lovelorn author of ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ singing the chorus of a song called ‘That’s My Bitch’.” Splendid. Petridis finishes by focussing on a Kanye boast, writing: “‘I write my curses in cursive,’ he snarls, thus offering up the fairly unedifying sound of a grown man boasting about being able to do joined-up writing. As much of ‘Watch the Throne’ proves, he has better things to brag about than that.”
Another megafan comes in the shape of Pitchfork’s Tom Breihan, who gives the record 8.5, and Pitchfork’s highest accolade, the Best New Music tag. Like many critics, he’s noted that whilst Jay-Z is the old hand, it’s Kanye who’s the album’s “obvious guiding force,” displaying “levels of unequaled audacity”. He writes, “The musical scope of ‘Watch The Throne’ is a tribute to his distinctive taste and sense of style.”
The AV Club’s Nathan Rabin also notes the marked obvious differences between the two artists, and the way they influence each other’s contributions to the album: “the bohemian, the faithful husband and the drugged-up playboy, the walking press release and the loose cannon. Jay-Z is tidy. Kanye is nothing but rough edges. On ‘Watch The Throne’, exhilarating messiness and go-for-broke spontaneity infect Jay-Z and push him outside his comfort zone and into a realm of intense emotional reflection.”
Time Magazine’s Claire Suddath looks to Kanye and Jay-Z’s combined heft, which raises some interesting reflections: “But dig deep into ‘…Throne’, past the bacchanal celebration of the finer things in life, and you’ll find the album’s heart: two men grappling with what it means to be successful and black in a nation that still thinks of them as second class”. She comments that despite Kanye and Jay Z carting along a whole heap of collaborators here – The RZA, Q-Tip, Beyonce – “‘Throne’ ultimately feels like a partnership; the work of just two rappers”.
The BBC’s Marcus J Moore disagrees, commenting that, “‘Watch The Throne’ sounds like a conflicted tug-of-war between the two, with Kanye lyrically dominating the album’s first half, and Jay struggling to clean up the remains.” In his final remarks, Moore concedes that whatever anyone thinks of this record, it’s not exactly going to harm Jay and Kanye’s careers: “In the end, ‘Watch The Throne’ is a very noble attempt at cohesion, but its inconsistency ultimately stalls the project, resulting in an uneven recording that buckles under the weight of its own pressure. The world is still watching, however, so Kanye and Jay can’t lose.”
So, what do you reckon? Who has the upper hand here, Kanye, or Jay Z? Did you prefer Kanye’s lolz-a-minute lines, or Jay’s more socially conscious soundbites? Give us your review of the album now.