Track by Track: ‘Watch the Throne’ Pt. 2
Brandon Soderberg continues his detailed look at the Kanye, Jay-Z collabo.
The second half of Watch The Throne is where the album really starts to come together, and where Jay and Kanye’s rapper-rich provincial worldview begins to fall apart. The production gets darker and more emotive, and the rhymes, song by song, shift from boasts of wealth (with the occasional poignant, political aside), to a more wizened focus (inner-city violence, the paranoia fame creates, and a nagging sense that things are pretty bad all around). All the while, the Throne further an argument for redemption through capitalism that seems more dubious as the album goes on.
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 (feat. Mr. Hudson)
“THAT’S MY BITCH”
Justin Vernon, stand the fuck up! His uncomfortably funky, mid-song part is so good. Anyway, ignore this song’s title, or don’t cringe as you read it, because the Throne are doing a “99 Problems”-like investigation of the word “bitch” here. Even the hook by Elly Jackson of La Roux, with its celebration of autonomy from the work-a-day grind, kicks against the lunkhead title and the Throne’s possessive, sorta-sensitive raps.
Jay-Z’s all twisted up, though, no longer able to simply admire a girl without gettingupset about body image and the way white standards of beauty have been branded onto our brains. “Why all the pretty icons always all-white?” he asks, and then demands that we “put some colored girls in the MoMA,” shouting out a character from Good Times: “Half these broads ain’t got nothing on Willona.” Jay spends a lot of his time on “That’s My Bitch” making art references that may or may not click for a lot of rap listeners, so it’s refreshing to hear a nod to a classic black television show.
The use of “broads” in that Willona line is particularly clever, given the song’s deconstructive approach to white values (“broads” is the Rat Pack equivalent to “bitches”), and the album’s overall view that casual racism permeates every aspect of life. Rappers are continually attacked by mouth-breathers for being uncouth, while Sinatra and his pals — obnoxious, boozing womanizers nonpareil — remain the epitome of cool. While Jay quietly dismisses white expectations, he continues to explore the relationships between people of color. Reflecting on his “not bad for some immigrants” aside in “Otis” (a reference to black and Latino success in the drug trade), he mentions Latina actresses Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek in the same breath as Halle Berry and Beyonce.
As My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy proved, Kanye’s capable of the type of “smart” rapping that Jay exhibits over and over on WTT; but his role on most of the album is to be the occasionally insightful, yet always asshole-ish foil to Jay’s mature, conflicted persona. He parodies himself with knowing lines, like, “I paid for them titties, get your own,” and later, when he describes himself falling in love with a stripper, it’s hard not to think of his “New Day” advice to his unborn son about a strip club not being “the place to get love.”Kanye’s verses though, are also the most fun and immediately engaging, especially here, where he masterfully rides Q-Tip’s “Apache” beat loop, his syllables hitting as hard as the Incredible Bongo Band sample. Kanye’s the devil on your shoulder for much of WTT, rapping the awesome-sounding ignorant shit into your ear.
“WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE”
A simple, abrasive beat that, every few bars, sounds like it’s about to malfunction, angrily pumps until a mournful synth enters the mix at the very moment Kanye shouts, “I asked her where she wanna be when she 25 / She turned around and looked at me and said ‘alive.'” He’s referencing OutKast’s “Da Art Of Storytellin Pt. 1,” and specifically, he’s referencing Andre 3000’s description of a scene from his teenage years, when Three Stacks talks about a young girl named Sasha Thumper who, when asked what she wants to be when she grows up answers, says, “alive,” throwing Andre for a loop (“I coulda died,” he admits).
Like the hook’s update of Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”(“It’s like a jungle sometimes…”), the somber hook of “Da Art Of Storytellin’ Pt. 1″ (“It’s like that now…”) is a clever, stiff-upper-lip twist on Run-D.M.C,’s state-of-the-nation rap “It’s Like That.” The Throne reference both songs here, employing socially conscious reality raps from the ’80s and ’90s to underline their point: Nothing has changed all that much. In his first verse, Jay implicates himself in “the jungle,” outlining losses early in his life (“My uncle died, my daddy did too”), while Kanye attempts to empathize, referencing the problems he’s mined for a few albums now (“Just when I thought I had everything, I lost it all”) and then, it’s right back to Jay who drops a fascinating virtuoso verse mixing street violence with “fame is fucked-up” freakouts.
The first four lines of Jay’s verse seem to describe the death of Tupac Shakur (“My dreams is big…it died in Vegas”), and the rest finds Jay imagining himself after the fame or, perhaps, if he’d continued in the vein of Reasonable Doubt‘s thug rap, or had pursued the moronic gangsta shtick that seemed to lead to the end of Shakur’s life. As the verse goes on, Jay molts back into a thug, or into Tupac, or maybe both: “My tears is tatted, my rag in my pocket.” He’s caught up in a violent image that’s backed him into a corner — Pac’s Makavelli meets Bowie’s “Cracked Actor.” “Where the fuck is the press?” he asks, in the voice of a rapper ; “where the fuck is the Prez?” he asks in the voice of the nation’s forgotten and ignored youth. The last line cleanly articulates the mentality that leads to street violence: “Risking my life, I’m already dying, so fuck it.” Can’t wait for this one to be broken down in Decoded 2.
“WHO GON STOP ME”
Sampling Flux Pavillion’s “I Can’t Stop,” the Throne grab hold of the same music that so many regular-ass young dudes in America are using to express rage and catharsis right now: dubstep. Yet, there’s a tangible menace to this beat — the subgenre’s signature, hard-partying drop refashioned to score Kanye’s provocative yelp about inner-city violence and Jay-Z rhyming about his criminal past and current “fuck you” success. Like his verse on “Welcome To The Jungle,” Jay flickers between two divergent paths — legal and illegal — and sometimes blurs the two. When he paints a scene at Las Vegas’ Wynn Casino, all eyes are on him. Because he’s a rapper or an uncouth drug dealer who doesn’t belong? Both, it seems. He’s in “all-white wearin’ no socks,” like a retired Jay of the next decade, but he also observes, “they know I’m a dope boy.”
The entire verse bounces between past and present, and as his rhymes pick up speed, the pressures of fame and memories of a past life rush out; synths whirl, sirens wail, and that Flux Pavillion sample stands up straight and collapses again and again, fitting the overdose of emotion. There’s a great moment where Jay tells engineer Noah Goldstein to “extend the beat” and you hear it rise back to life like a reanimated sci-fi robot, ready to stalk around for a little while longer. By the end, he’s reconciled his contradictions: “Street-smart and I’m book smart, could’ve been a chemist because I cook smart.”
Then the hook returns. And, oh man, what a hook. “This is something like a holocaust / Millions of our people lost,” is wildly inappropriate, perfectly Kanye and actually kinda insightful. He’s making the point that inner-city violence, by the dictionary definition of the word (“a mass slaughter of people”), is a holocaust, but is never framed as such. On the next song, “Murder To Excellence,” Kanye will compare the murder rates of Iraq and Chicago. These lyrical provocations serve a purpose similar to Jay calling himself an immigrant on “Otis”: It forces listeners to reconsider politically loaded language.
For an example of the way black-on-black violence is downplayed, look no further than this study on states with a “culture of honor.” It focuses on the way that “machismo” in southern and western states, brought on by “dangers of rustling, low police presence, and few natural resources,” leads to an increases in accidental deaths. Gang violence also breeds a “culture of honor” and results in way more senseless deaths, though you’ll rarely hear it framed in such lofty, sympathetic terms.
The deaths of millions of young black males hovers in the background of “Who Gon Stop Me,” and Kanye follows that loaded “holocaust” line up with a somber, “Bow our heads and pray to the Lord,” and then, an egregiously triumphant, “Till I die, I’mma fuckin’ ball / Who gon’ stop me?” Kanye, for the last time on the album really, keeps mindlessly flossing in the face of impending doom.
“MURDER TO EXCELLENCE”
Jay-Z dedicates “Murder To Excellence” to Danroy Henry Jr., killed by police gunfire in 2010. Later, he says he’s the reincarnation of Fred Hampton, who was murdered by the FBI, in his sleep, on December 4th, 1969, the day Jay was born: “I arrived on the day Fred Hampton died / I guess real niggas multiply.” That line sounds hot, but when it’s placed alongside Kanye’s declaration that “it’s time that we redefine black power,” it elucidates the Throne’s vision: Political rhetoric and action, particularly “by any means necessary,” must be replaced with simpler, pragmatic goals of economic success and independence. It’s a continuation of the sentiment from Jay’s infamous verse on The Black Album‘s “Moment Of Clarity,” where he confesses that he “dumbed down for[his] audience to double his dollars,” while at the same time kinda dismissing conscious hip-hop by explaining that he “can’t help the poor if he’s one of them.”
In the “Excellence” half of “Murder To Excellence” (the production credits split the song into two pieces), Jay observes that he “only spot[s] a few blacks the higher [he] go[es],” shouting out Will Smith and Oprah Winfrey, and then says, “that ain’t enough, we gonna need a million more,” a genuinely rousing call-to-arms that fits well with Swizz Beatz and S1’s militant production. This is, for better or worse, Booker T. Washington type shit. On Kanye’s “Excellence” verse, he observes “In the past if you picture events like a black tie / What’s the last thing you expect to see? Black guys.” Then he adds, “What’s the life expectancy for black guys?” without even answering because we all know the answer. “The system’s working effectively, that’s why.”
But this mindful, Milton Friedman-like economic theorizing doesn’t hit as hard as the “Murder” half of the song, which has Kanye flashing back to his school days. He’s a middle-class kid separate from the violence, but not unaffected: “Heard about at least three killings this afternoon / Looking at the news, like, “Damn I was just with him after school.” He diagnoses his school: “No shop class, but half the school got a tool / And a “I could die any day”-type attitude.” In his second verse, referencing the “holocaust” line from “Who Gon Stop Me,” Kanye asks, “Is it genocide?” and ends with “I feel the pain in my city wherever I go / 314 soldiers died in Iraq / 509 died in Chicago.”
“Murder To Excellence” is Watch The Throne‘s thesis statement: Ridiculous boasts of success and conservative economic theorizing, rubbing up against sobering accounts of violence and the oft-ignored devastation it wreaks.
“MADE IN AMERICA”
If the Throne’s fiscal theories don’t creep you out a bit, then perhaps this big, dumb ode to the United States of America will? “Made In America,” however, isn’t Glenn Beck rally nonsense;it’s more like those goofy-ass MSNBC “Lean Forward” ads celebrating America’s greatness while making it quite clear that there’s still a lot of work to do. This song was Jay-Z’s idea, right? He’s the capitalist cornball and Kanye’s the cynic (the child of a college professor and Black Panther), who’s much too worried about speaking truth to power, be it about George W. Bush or Taylor Swift, to buy into this idea that success means anything more than an escape from having to be so fucking regular.
Kanye’s up for the ride, though, along with Frank Ocean, who is probably biting his tongue a bit during the mind-bogglingly unironic hook, which conflates Civil Rights leaders with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Despite all the bullshit, the Throne explain, they’ve made it in America. Jay maintains this approach, rewriting the Pledge of Allegiance as a dedication to his grandmother and “all the scramblers,” rather than the United States of America, which really hasn’t done all that much for him. Still, he acknowledges, through the country’s combination of freedom and corruption, it has allowed him to go from a kid in the Marcy Projects to a cultural force.
His larger point here, though, is that his success is as knotty and corrupt as the United States’ history. America’s glorious rise is built on the backs of slaves and slaughter and Jay’s narrative is built on crack-dealing, violence, and lies; yet, look where it’s gotten him. This is an ugly, but very American vision of pragmatism.Connecting the Norman Rockwell-like image of apple pies baking in grandma’s oven, to crack cooking on grandma’s stove is particularly inspired. It’s a brilliant balancing act between saccharine faith in country and “all bullshit aside” honesty that doesn’t allow Jay to rap about his success without admitting the huge role that drug-dealing played in that success.
While Jay’s verse is conflicted, Kanye’s verges on tragic. He celebrates his mom, who encouraged his beatmaking and, apparently, hooked him up with No I.D (a fact I don’t think he’s revealed before); and he’s happy he could buy his mom some nice shit, but that’s about as far as it goes. He gets derailed by stuff like starting a blog and petty anger at South Park because, well, his mom is dead. This is about as excited as he gets about anything in his life, except, of course, for the insane soundscapes and sweeping, collaborative albums, et al., which clearly come from a place of passion.
“WHY I LOVE YOU”
And so, “Why I Love You,” the darkest, most twisted-up song since intro track “No Church In The Wild,” is where this weird, money-burning yet socially-conscious hip-hop event wraps up. Jay is “alone” in “Rome…burning,” asking, “why does it always end up like this?” He lashes out at old friends who don’t think he’s done enough for them. Kanye’s at his side, playing hypeman but coming off more like an annoying crony. The way Kanye pronounces “Huh?!” like it somehow has an “N” in it somewhere is especially grating — and it’s supposed to be.
Here are two guys, obnoxiously gassing themselves up like they’re the only ones left in the whole world, which given the rarefied air they breathe isn’t that far off. Kanye’s “I never been a deep sleeper” interjection — part boast, part confession — is touching, and the way their voices meet up on the word “paranoia” says just about all you need to know about the Throne. But Jay’s also willing to admit that he’s more than a little bit hurt by all these supposed betrayals. In verse two, he tells listeners that the stuff said about him by former friends like Dame Dash and Beanie Sigel really stings, and he expresses it in melodramatic terms, like he’s penning a post-hardcore break-up song: “You ripped out my heart and you stepped on it.”
Then, he immediately brushes off his shoulders (“I spent about a minute, maybe less on it”) and gets on a jet. But as we’ve heard time and time again on WTT, mostly via Kanye, that couture and private-jet talk exists to cover up the pain. This is still a diss song, for sure, but it’s a little self-critical too, and Jay ends the song — and the album — with a hip-hop take on the words of Christ, rejecting “rap beef” for a moving expression of sympathy: “Please lord forgive him, for these niggas know not what they do.”
“Why I Love You” is also an acknowledgement that there are limits to the Throne’s heady, boot-strap ideas about economic success. Much of the album deals with those fortunate or just plain unlucky enough to attain the American dream, but here the focus is on those who can’t, and never will, do better; “I tried to teach niggas how to be kings / And all they ever wanted to be was soldiers,” Jay raps in disbelief.
This is a smarter version ofBlueprint 3‘s smarmy salvo “What We Talking About.” “Why I Love You,” clarifies Watch The Throne‘s context — it’s the final part of a trilogy that began with Blueprint 3‘s combination of mature raps and futuristic, soul-beat production, and continued on with Kanye’s insular, ambitious My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. WTT‘s the final part in a smart, sensitive, paranoid rich-guy rap trilogy, but it also marks the end of albums like this.
The couture-expensive samples (James Brown, Otis Redding), references to fashion many of us haven’t even heard of, and the Cash-Money Records gone tastefully gauche cover from Givenchy flaunt the Throne’s rarefied air. But so do those tangled-up raps about wealth and economics that it seems, stem from serious conversations Jay and Kanye have about being black, rich, and famous, and what the hell any of that means. Probably for the better, rap’s getting small again and no one’s going to arrive to replace the Throne because well, who even wants such a burden? There are worse ways for the conspicuously consumptive hip-hop era to signal it’s end than Watch The Throne.