Jay-Z and Kanye West, ‘Watch the Throne’ (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam/Roc Nation)
They are both obscenely wealthy; you, in all likelihood, are not. Let us neither over- nor underemphasize this aspect of Watch the Throne, the long-threatened, full-length Jay-Z/Kanye West summit, garish and glorious, exquisite and exasperating.
Quick litmus test: Does the phrase “I’m planking on a million,” which spills joyously from the lips of one Shawn Carter, fill you with revulsion? (And is it Aw Geez Dad Please Shut Up revulsion or Fuck You Scrooge McDuck revulsion?) To what degree can you stomach incessant chatter about cars, (terrible) sports franchises, priceless works of art apparently mounted over toilets, gold bottles, sheepskin coats, Paris boutiques. Could the timing be any worse? Does the timing matter? Can you blame two of the least relatable people on planet earth for not being particularly relatable, of being oblivious to all the other shit clogging up your Twitter feed right now? Would We Are Not Human Beings have been a better title? Ready to Die of Old Age in Unimaginable Comfort?
You either crave 5,000 words on this historical parley or you can barely tolerate nine, as delivered by Das Racist’s Ashok Kondabolu: “TWO RICH OLD MEN BORE A WORLD IN FLAMES.”
And yet can this possibly surprise you? The elitism, the narcissism, the relentless capitalism, the smug yet undeniable greatness? Are you not entertained? Exhausting and overwhelming and violently random (Otis Redding! Dubstep! Will Ferrell! Overheated opera! James Brown! Phil Manzanera! Cassius! Bon Iver! Seal’s even in there somewhere!), Throne can’t help but be admired, even enjoyed. It sounds expensive; it pisses excellence, even as it pisses you off. Your hosts are having a fantastic time, dialed in, imbued with genuine camaraderie, clearly in the same room together (never guaranteed), trading off lines and occasionally even words, finishing each others’ Ferris Bueller and Miami Heat jokes over chopped-up James Brown yelps on the Neptunes’ “Gotta Have It,” turning “racks on racks on racks” into “Maybachs on ‘Bachs on ‘Bachs on ‘Bachs.” Gotta love ‘em. Two titans of industry with nothing left to prove, no mountains left to climb, content now to simply climb each other.
Listen: Kanye is involved (with at least partial credit for every track, variously joined by Mike Dean, Hit-Boy, Swizz Beatz, Pete Rock, No ID,and so forth), so the vast majority of the production is amazing. PBR&B prince Frank Ocean (joined by The-Dream!) moans through somber, ominous opener “No Church in the Wild” (discussed: Socrates, the perils of monogamy, implied regicide) and the subdued but triumphant “Made in America” (wherein Jay wistfully recalls his grandma’s banana pudding and Kanye complains about South Park). “Lift Off” is a triumphant pop-synth avalanche with a hook so ridiculous (“We gon take it to the moon / Take it to the stars!”) only Beyoncé could sell it. The icy synth jabs of “Niggas in Paris” gracefully withstand a couple of goofy Blades of Glory samples and a violent dubstep intrusion; “Who Gon Stop Me” valiantly attempts to bury that aforementioned narcissism (Jay-Z is now just reeling off the names of famous painters to impress you) in an equally goofy but no less effective rise-of-the-machines dystopian squall. Beats the hell outta “Beach Chair.”
So many rich sonic environments in which to learn about expensive watches! “Otis” pulls a scatting Otis Redding into a bottomless k-hole of self-regard (“Luxury rap / The Hermes of verses”), but the mood is playful, or at least “playful.” For sheer absurdity, there’s the delightfully crass, Q-Tip assisted “That’s My Bitch,” which is what would happen if the Bloodhound Gang won the lottery, used the cash to convene a La Roux/Bon Iver supergroup, and was able to clear samples of both “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” and “Apache.” (Jay on Beyoncé: “Now shoo children, stop lookin’ at her tits / Get your own dog, ya heard/ That’s my bitch.” It’s more romantic than it sounds.)
The soft, quiet, affecting “New Day,” with RZA stretching a taffy-pulled Nina Simone over funereal piano chords, is perhaps Throne’s most tangibly human moment, as Jay and Kanye give advice to their as-yet-unborn sons with a semblance of fear and remorse and hope. The details are outlandish (telethon regret, paparazzi animosity, talk of “bondin’ on charters”) and the overall sentiment is still “We’re sorry for the inconvenience our tremendous notoriety will cause you,” but a recognizable sentiment it remains.
(Quick digression: “Otis” and the G.O.O.D. Fridays remnant bonus track “The Joy” are described in the liner notes as “featuring Otis Redding” and “featuring Curtis Mayfield,” respectively. Both of those guys are dead. They are not featured, but sampled. “Featured” indicates live, freely willing conspirators. Like Mr. Hudson.)
No, it’s not like fame and wealth and pissed greatness is all they talk about, exactly, but such talk does permeate everything. “Murder to Excellence” is your other Serious Moment, Jay eulogizing 20-year-old Westchester police-shooting victim Danroy Henry, Kanye comparing Chicago’s homicide rate unfavorably to Iraq’s. But that’s just the “Murder” half; for the shift to “Excellence,” the beat speeds up, and black-on-black crime cedes the floor to “Black tie, Black Maybachs / Black excellence, opulence, decadence.” Oh, go on.
And they do. “Why I Love You” closes out the album proper (but stay tuned for “H*A*M”!) with a monster Cassius-lifted chorus (ably sung by Mr. Hudson, it must be said) and the boys tiresomely manufacturing some straw-man would-be assassins: “Caesar didn’t see it, so he ceased to exist / So the nigga that killed him had keys to his shit.” Who exactly is Brutus in this analogy? Dame Dash? Wiz Khalifa? Could there possibly be a cornier line with which to end this record than “Please lord forgive him / For these niggas not know what they do”?
Is this all just an elaborate exercise to prevent Drake — the humblebrag-made-flesh disciple — from laying siege to their kingdom of bizarrely simultaneous self-worship and self-pity? Are they fantasizing about being widely hated because they find it preferable to being widely ignored? Watch the Throne is far too good to condemn them thus, but not good enough to erase the possibility.