Though Jay-Z and Kanye West’s new collaborative album has sharply divided both popular and critical opinion, “Watch the Throne” is an undeniably important, even essential record in the spectrum of hip-hop music.
The sheer weight that these two giants hold over the evolution of hip-hop and popular music in general makes everything they touch instantly influential. And while Jay-Z and West are clearly aware of their place at the top, their opulence manifests itself in surprising ways.
There’s no shortage of Jay-Z’s witty braggadocio or West’s overt, almost cartoonish misogyny, but the true show of pride is musical. For instance, to produce “Otis,” a song built around a readily recognizable sample of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” West got in contact with Redding’s estate manager and even credits him in the track listing. Crediting an artist posthumously is somewhat uncommon in the hip-hop world and the decision incited an odd, unprecedented discussion about the cost of samples and what their prices signify.
The variety of producers, the vocalists featured, who include Beyoncé, Seal, and Justin Vernon, not to mention the costly samples makes this an undoubtedly expensive record.
But “Watch the Throne” sounds expensive. Bloggers have started throwing around the term “luxury rap” to describe not only the cost of the album, but its sonic grandeur. West’s idiosyncratic style is present on nearly every track on the album, expanding on the experimental aspects of his 2010 release, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”
But the string section that keeps reappearing throughout the album, the Eastern-sounding sample on “Gotta Have It,” and the fact that Jay-Z and West are the only rappers to appear on the album gives the whole thing an aura of cultured exclusivity that sets it apart from other projects of its kind.
The verses on the album are as varied as the beats that support them. Jay-Z seems to switch effortlessly from loving husband and future father to street-smart thug all the while spinning tight yet organic verses. West is also less single-minded than on past records. He matches Jay-Z’s more confessional verses with some of his own like, “I’ll never let me son have an ego/he’ll be nice to everyone wherever we go.”
And though there are plenty of references to Maybachs and bags full of money, there’s also a healthy helping of high culture. West references “Hermes” at one point, perhaps a double-entendre to the fashion company and the Greek god, and Jay-Z alludes to gallery-owner Larry Gagosian when praising his wife, Beyoncé, with the rhyme, “Call Larry Gagosian, you belong in mo-seums.” And though highbrow subject matter isn’t new to either rapper, it seems significant that both associate high culture with wealth rather than intelligence or artistic significance.
“Watch the Throne,” as a whole, is rather difficult to contend with. It’s easy to sympathize with fans who call it inconsistent, self-indulgent and arrogant because, it is all of these things.
But it doesn’t seem affected. The West-produced tracks sound authentic, Jay-Z tosses off verses as casually as ever and though both are conscious of the inevitable impact this record will have on the industry, they seem to have largely come to terms with their significance. That comfort with their status as the kings of hip-hop is what lends Watch the Throne its true luxury.