There was a mysterious Eyes Wide Shut feeling to Monday night's listening party for Kanye West and Jay-Z's much-anticipated Watch the Throne collaborative album.
After handing over any and every device that could possibly record audio or video, an excited clump of writers, rappers, models, and nebulous industry types filed into the Rose Center for Earth and Space at New York's Museum of Natural History for an hour and a half of sipping champagne, waiting, noshing (shouts to that potato-pancake thing with maple syrup or something on it), and more waiting. Then suddenly, everyone began climbing a staircase and moving towards an elevator, which took us to a dimly lit museum floor (illuminated only by TVs showing a Watch The Throne documentary). Finally, we were seated in Hayden Planetarium.
More and more guests flowed in, including hip-hop royalty (Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes, Clipse's Pusha T), some rap-nerd legends (Kanye co-producer and Rap-A-Lot sonic architect Mike Dean, Hot 97's Peter Rosenberg) and, yes, Beyonce. Kanye arrived early on, dressed kinda casual (flannel, jeans, big-ass chain) smiling, shaking hands, and grinning ear-to-ear, genuinely psyched to be there.
There had been a quiet, pseudo-listening session for Watch The Throne in early July, but only snippets were played, so this was the first time the full album would be heard -- in a freaking planetarium-- so anticipation was palpable. Shit had to be perfect. Everybody was behaving like a superfan.
Then, with little warning, the place went totally dark and the loping bass line of "No Church In The Wild" blasted out of a massive stack of speakers that would've made Sunn 0))) proud. Kanye's drums pounded hard enough to make your chest vibrate, as "planets" formed in the "sky" above. This is how you're supposed to listen to an album!
As the previously released "Otis" had suggested, Kanye and Jay-Z are seriously rapping together on this record, at times even doing some Run-D.M.C.-like bouncing back and forth every few bars, which is quite refreshing in an era of phoned-in posse cuts. On album closer "Why I Love You," for example, Kanye's verse begins where Jay's ends -- on the word "paranoid." It's a telling detail that shows how much Watch the Throne is a thought-out, cohesive album, not the perfunctory star-packing of those two Jay-Z and R. Kelly collaborative efforts from a few years back.
Other telling details: a Phil Manzanera sample (from the Roxy Music guitarist's 1978 art-rock solo album K-Scope) on "No Church In The Wild"; Jay-Z quoting Waka Flocka Flame's "Bustin' At Em"; Beyonce's glorious hook on "Lift Off"; a hilarious clip from the Will Ferrell ice-skating comedy Blades Of Glory; and an unabashedly aggressive dubstep beat-drop in "Who's Gon Stop Me."
When the music ended, after a long roar of applause and cheers, Jay-Z politely thanked everyone for letting the duo "share [their] album" and then briefly discussed details of Watch The Throne's production. He explained that it took "nine months" to complete, going through "three stages," including a point where it got "really big" and bogged down by its own grandeur, becoming, in Jay's diplomatic words, "not enjoyable." Watch The Throne, it seems, very easily could've turned into a comfortable collection of songs, with the two superstars sneering at all us crumbs. The absence of "H.A.M." on the final product (though it will appear in a "deluxe" edition) suggests a pointed attempt to avoid a certain kind of coasting bombast.
The album may be huge and unrelenting, but it isn't decadent. Mostly, it deals with the reality that these guys are hugely successful, a fact that weighs very heavily on their consciences. Not in the "I'm famous and it sucks" way that Kanye's mined for awhile, but in a "not everyone has it like this, and I feel fucked-up about that" way that can be genuinely moving. They appear to be actively considering their come-up and what it all means, even tying it into African-American history on the track "Made In America."
Yet, there's a wizened pleasure/pain dialectic going on with Watch the Throne too. A particularly poignant verse by Jay-Z revolves around the nostalgic image of a grandma baking apple pies in the kitchen stove -- the very same stove that is later used by a younger generation to cook up crack rocks. There are numerous, disgusted, wistful references to black-on-black crime, and Jay-Z has an empathetic verse on "Welcome To The Jungle," written in the voice of a lost and confused corner drug dealer.
"New Day" finds Kanye and Jay giving advice to their unborn kids (Kanye has a really great line advising his son to avoid strip clubs), confronting the reality that their kids' lives will be easier than their own, at least financially. And, to them, that's beautiful yet bizarre, because it sets up a whole new set of problems: Their children will be saddled with the reputations of their rappin'-ass dads. It's a touching sentiment on an album that's most certainly massive -- bigger, louder, almost as powerful as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But that's no surprise. What's so shocking about Watch The Throne is how devastatingly mindful it is.
Tentative Watch The Throne tracklist:
1. No Church in the Wild (feat. Frank Ocean)
2. Lift Off (feat. Beyoncé)
3. Niggas in Paris
4. Otis (feat. Otis Redding)
5. Gotta Have It
6. New Day
7. That's My Bitch
8. Welcome to the Jungle
9. Who Gon Stop Me
10. Murder to Excellence
11. Made in America (feat. Frank Ocean)
12. Why I Love You So (feat. Mr. Hudson)