SPIN’s Track-by-Track Take on ‘Watch the Throne’

Brandon Soderberg reviews the first six songs from Jay-Z and Kanye West's outsized new album.

Jay-Z and Kanye West’s collaborative album Watch The Throne is finally in stores. August 12 also marks the day that the painter Jean Michael Basquiat died, 23 years ago. It’s an oddly appropriate time for a money-grubbing, deeply considered, pop-art rap album full of shiny, expensive message-music to drop. When it was released on iTunes Monday, with the reality of the United States’ lowered credit rating sinking in, plus the riots in England, Watch The Throne was criticized by many for being tone-deaf and out-of-step. But despite Jay and Kanye’s wealth-signifying shout-outs, their swaggering, money-burning attitude is delicately woven into an affecting, pointed exploration of success that’s freaking massive and also a lot of fun to listen to.

This week and next, I’ll explain why, track by track.

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)

An ominous guitar riff, pumped full of bass, bubbles to the surface (from a sped-up sample of 1978’s “K-Scope” by Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera), synths quiver and pulsate, and Odd Future buddy/budding R&B star Frank Ocean intones a series of loaded, tone-setting questions (“What’s a mob to a king? / What’s a king to a God?”), building towards “What’s a God to a non-believer?”

Jay-Z and Kanye West aren’t the non-believers here, though; they’re the guys navigating this ugly world beyond good and evil. Like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, with its crucial question — “Can we get much higher?” — Watch The Throne begins with a loaded question we don’t actually want answered.

For Jay, the “wild” on the song’s title is the world of money-making, be it his early days as a hustler or theilluminati-like, behind-closed doors type shit of the rich and powerful to which he’s now privy. Kanye’s “wilderness” is the supposedly “free” world of sex and drugs, described here in a way that would make the Weeknd blush, but with a centered sense of morality that the Toronto crooner’s too hip and new to decadence to grasp. Orgies and open relationships have their own set of bizarro rules and regulations that Kanye observes, and girls have Tumblr-like, sounds-good-but-mean-nothing mission statements tattooed on their bodies (“No Apologies,” “Love Is Cursed By Monogamy”). Pretty grim stuff, and it introduces the Throne’s sober, insider-outsider perspective on fame and wealth.

Towards the end of “No Church In The Wild,” right before that strange Jon Brion-esque interlude, Kanye builds up the track to a whirl of animal noises (birds squawking, a lion growling), primal screams of pain, and police sirens. By merging the sounds of nature with those of the streets, he foreshadows “Welcome To The Jungle,” Jay’s empathetic critique of gang culture. The narrative of Watch the Throne is that the Throne has escaped the “jungle” of the streets only to find themselves in another that’s even more corrupt and terrifying: the world of the rich and powerful.

There isn’t actually all that much “We rich!” triumph on this album. Reading some reviews, you’d think it was just 12 tracks of something likethis. Yet even at it’s most aspirational and expensive, WTT remains melancholy, and that feeling extends beyond Jay and Ye’s update on rap’s “Mo Money, Mo Problems” meta-narrative. The album even deigns to address the plight of the urban poor, who obviously will never have it like Jay and Ye. Look at it this way: If Watch The Throne were simply fat and comfortable, it would begin with the space-pop of “Lift Off,” certainly not the menacing, paranoid rumble of “No Church in the Wild.”

When Jay and Kanye aren’t brooding about fame, caught up in their reputations, they’re screaming, “Holy shit, we made it!” And that’s what “Lift Off” is about. This kind of glee does involve running down a list of cool locales, fancy clothes, and expensive art they’ve purchased, but nevertheless, it is quite different from good old-fashioned conspicuous consumption. There’s a classically American sense of making something of yourself on WTT, and that’s unabashedly introduced on “Lift Off,” and complicated later on with “New Day” and “Made In America.”

The raps on “Lift Off” are mostly placeholders; it’s the feeling that matters here, best exemplified by Kanye’s high-pitched, downright adorable singing. But this Jay-Z line — “When you Earnhardt as me, eventually you hit a big wall” — is an example of how, even in this massive song, there’s still a reminder of the limits to wealth and success. Jay’s referencing the death of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, who died while racing at the top of his game; but he’s also suggesting a more general, inevitable downfall — of the economy, of the Western world — pronouncing “Earnhardt” like “earn hard,” thus making the line, “when you earn hard as me, eventually you hit a big wall.” What was that about this album ignoring the current economic climate?

Listening to WTT, it’s quite clear Jay and Kanye are political conservatives in the sense that they believe in capitalism and espouse a “boot- strap” mentality. But it should be noted, this is quite a lived-in and racially aware version of conservatism. That makes them not all that different from working-class, regular guy rappers like G-Side or Big K.R.I.T., who express a similar disgust with institutionalized racism, while leaning heavily on their own from-nothing come-ups. The Throne aren’t torn up about how much money they have, but they’re upset that their success doesn’t extend to all that many people (especially black people), and they’re mindful of the fact that they owe much of their success to those who are less fortunate.

That the album begins with hooks from Beyonce, the pop star of our era, and Frank Ocean, a major-label reject who reignited his career thanks to the Internet, suggests an awareness of the music industry’s decline, as well. Still, “Lift Off” is mostly just a big pop-hit e-pill. “All Of The Lights,” with its recession-rap context from Kanye and yes, Fergie (!?), is replaced here with more synths, a bit of wisdom, and yes, Seal and LMFAO for no apparent reason. Though it’s apparently tough for many to sympathize with the Throne’s success, they’re actually expressing a universal emotion: The duo never thought they’d be where they are right now, and they’re overwhelmed by a strange, exasperating sense of idealism.

“This shit weird / We ain’t supposed to be here,” the usually cocksure Jay-Z confesses on “Niggas In Paris.” Being famous is indeed weird. But being black and famous is a special kind of weird and that’s the overarching theme of Watch The Throne. It’s a rarefied burden, yes, but not one to be dismissed, even if the album did drop on the day Wall Street farted out. WTT may be a musical event, but not because of its broad sonic palette (woah, dubstep!) or because two rapping superstars told you so months ago, but because it bites off more than it really needs to chew.

Think about it this way: Watch The Throne, which is about blackness and responsibility and the grimy American dream, is probably gonna be the second biggest album of the year. It could’ve been 12 tracks of “H.A.M.” but instead you don’t even get one “H.A.M.” That lumpy epic is relegated to a bonus track. Let’s start with Jay and Kanye titling this song “Niggas In Paris,” which speaks to a W.E.B. DuBois-ian “double consciousness” that permeates much of the album.

If this is a party song, it’s a very self-conscious one, in which the Throne don’t just see themselves as wealthy guys acting like assholes in the city of lights, but as “niggas in Paris,” painfully aware of how whites perceive their partying. There’s a really odd, but touching moment, when Jay exclaims, “I’m shocked too / I’m supposed to be locked up too,” like he puts his drink down and looks over at Kanye and it hits him that he’s not dead or in jail but acting a fool in Paris Fucking France. Even partying is knotty, and a little uncomfortable, for these guys.

Jay brashly takes it further, making himself unsympathetic by preemptively answering all these silly, “We’re in a recession, how dare you?!” critiques of the album: “If you escaped what I escaped / You’d be in Paris getting fucked up too.” This is, however obnoxious, very, very true. “Niggas In Paris” follows the Throne around as they act like insufferable males (the song’s a rap version of John Cassavettes’ Husbands), shirking responsibility (“The Nets could go 0-82 and I look at you like this shit gravy”), while laughing at a middle-brow chicks who order “fish filet.”

These snide remarks come from one guy whose idea of glamour was once a big dumb boat in the “Big Pimpin'” video, and another who introduced himself as pathetically consumed by entry-level materialism (“I can’t even pronounce nothing / Pass that Ver-say-see”). They are playing with their past reputations here. At some point, they ordered fish filet at really nice restaurants too. Now they don’t. Maybe one day you’ll figure it out. Until then, you’re gonna get clowned.

Meanwhile, the samples from the Will Ferrell comedy Blades Of Glory are there to clown Jay and Kanye. “Niggas In Paris” begins with Ferrell smugly announcing, “We’re gonna skate to one song and one song only,” parodying the Throne’s percieved, petulant, diva-like attitude. Later on, a sample actually interrupts Kanye’s verse after the absolutely terrible line, “Got my niggas in Paris / And they going gorilla.” Speaking for the listener, Ferrell’s more reasonable nemesis in the film, played by Jon Heder,declares, “No one knows what that means!” The film snippets keep the song from being completely insufferable; the Throne are in on the joke.

“Otis,” which samples “Try a Little Tenderness,” features the Throne rapping Run-D.M.C.-style, and in the last verse, nods to Audio Two’s “Top Billin,” begins a mid-album suite of nostalgia-tinged production. The soul samples really get to breathe in this section (Nina Simone on “New Day,” James Brown on nearly every track) and all these rap-nerd details (quoting Raekwon’s “Incarcerated Scarfaces” on “New Day,” updating “The Message” on “Welcome to the Jungle,” using “Apache” on “That’s My Bitch”) ground WTT in hip-hop history and precedent.Given the album’s focus on black success and influence, this nostalgia trip is conceptually necessary.

Kanye’s masterful, sideways chopping of Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness,” reducing the Memphis legend to a loop of visceral grunts and hollers, references the soul-beat tradition that started the Throne’s friendship, while cleverly updating it, as well. When Jay-Z threatens, “Run up on ‘Ye, I might have to murk ya,” he’s also commenting on their relationship, reasserting that which hasn’t changed. Namely, that Jay was and is the heavy, and Kanye is the normal kid for whom violence was never a way of life. “Big brother” Jay’s still there to protect Kanye.

To varying degrees of success, Blueprint 3 reconciled the tension between Jay’s violent past and current, rarefied status. Just because he now hangs out with President Obama, doesn’t mean that suddenly, the grim details of youth are washed away from memory. And when he explains that “there ain’t nothing cool about carrying a strap” on “What We Talkin’ About,” it resonates because it’s not coming from a smarmy, above-it-all MC. WTT similarly exists between worlds.

Jay begins “Otis” with obnoxious boasting (“I invented swag”) but by his final verse, he’s come back down to earth to deliver an empathetic verse aimed at immigrants and their illegal, off-the-grid success — what other option do they have? The life isn’t ideal, he’s quick to explain, as they’re “driving Benzes without benefits”; but nevertheless, “not bad for some immigrants.” He’s also talking about himself there, just as “self-made” and up-from-poverty as his Latino friends. Jay’s calling himself an “immigrant,” which being the son of a son of a son of someone brought over here from Africa, he most certainly is. The album toys with politically loaded words like this a few times, most controversially when Kanye calls the murder of black youths in inner cities “something like a Holocaust.”

But on his verse, Jay-Z expresses kinship with “illegals,” at a time when debates about immigration policy have hit a fever pitch. Yet Jay speaks the language of the right-wing knuckleheads (money), explaining how these preventative actions won’t stop anything: “Build your fences, we digging tunnels / Can’t you see we getting money up from under you?” Jay may have “invented swag,” but it’s clear that it now extends to the nation’s most ostracized population. It’s funny that Public Enemy’s Chuck D dropped a smarmy, lecturing freestyle (titled “Notice, Know This”) over “Otis,” bemoaning the song’s disconnect from the real world; funny because, in fact, Jay’s eight bars here are more poignant than anything Chuck raps in his version.

A James Brown sample is cast in the role of the Throne’s hypeman on “Gotta Have It,” cheering them on, and shouting over a classic Kanye chipmunked vocal and the Neptunes’ minimalist synth-funk. There’s been a lot of controversy about “Otis” being credited as “featuring Otis Redding” (Curtis Mayfield is similarly credited on bonus track “The Joy”), but Watch The Throne is, in part, an investigation of “black excellence” (Jay’s words), and the Throne position themselves in this continuum, so it’s only right that they treat these musical gods like peers.

The bar-for-bar, back-and-forth rapping, a tribute to not only old school hip-hop, is retrofitted to play out like a dramatic dialogue between Kanye and Jay-Z, which actually makes sense, given the Socrates shout-outs on “No Church In The Wild.” Kanye takes the lead, and Jay tags along, asking him questions (“Ain’t that where the Heat play?”), keeping the flow moving along. Halfway through, Jay steps up and enacts a scene where he threatens a guy who hasn’t paid his debts: “Wassup, motherfucker, where my money at? / You gon’ make me come down to your house where yo’ mummy at? / Mummy wrap the kids, have ‘em cryin’ for they mommy back.” It’s vicious, and shows just how easy this CEO/rap superstar can resurrect the anger and scrappy aggression of his past.

But Kanye doesn’t let the tough talk go on for very long. He flips Jay’s next line, “Dummy that your daddy is / Tell him I just want my racks,” into a quote from YC’s “Racks,” then turns the hook from that current radio hit into the even more wealth-flaunting “Maybachs on bachs,” and finally, politicizes it as “blacks on blacks on blacks.” In three lines, WTT’s themes are conflated: Crime, wealth, and racial tension. Jay then asks Kanye how he got his Maybach and Kanye explains that it was by “layin’ raps on tracks,” and, implicitly, not through criminal behavior. “Gotta Have It” is a flip on “Otis,” where Jay’s criminal background was a bonus (he can protect Kanye); here, thugging is a detriment and Kanye explains that there are other ways to get paper. At that point, Kanye has persuaded Jay, whose raps immediately switch out of gangsta mode and into ridiculously mindless rich-guy boasts, like, “I’m planking on a million.”

Going legit, though, doesn’t stop people from going after you. Kanye comes alive on “Gotta Have It,” when he finds a way to approach a larger topic (racism) through his very specific troubles and foibles — as related to George Bush, Taylor Swift, and any number of less loaded, unimpeachably obnoxious incidents: “Hello hello hello, white America, assassinate my character.” Anti-Kanye grandstanding manifests itself in everything from media eye-rolls to Swift fans calling him a “nigger” on Twitter, and most certainly has a racial dynamic. But Kanye goes further, suggesting it’s conspiratorial, an attempt to silence a powerful black man: “Money, matrimony, yeah, they trying to break the marriage up.”

Something you have to at least accept, if you’re going to understand WTT, is that money means a lot to the Throne. Not only because it lets them buy fly shit (though that’s part of it), but because it makes massive, gorgeous albums like this possible (“Gotta Have It” is a collaborative Neptunes and Kanye production). Money inspires the duo, because it has afforded them success beyond what they ever could’ve imagined. Yet it’s still an escape, for better and worse.

Legacy and influence obviously matter a great deal to the Throne. That’s why there was all that hard-to-stomach, pre-release, we’re-making-history talk; and it’s also why Watch The Throne’s in a constant conversation with black music’s past. On “New Day,” however, Jay and Kanye approach the idea of legacy from a more down-to-earth perspective: How will they raise their kids? The genius of this song is not its concept, but how tasteful this quite-shticky song turns out to be.

Kanye views his future child — actually, the song’s conceit — as a chance to right his wrongs, because he can’t imagine or face the realities of raising a kid. He’s still growing up himself, and still stupidly upset about things that happened more than a year ago (or as long ago as five years ago). But he’s also still mourning the 2007 death of his mother, Donda West, which he can’t get over. The line, “And I’ll never let his mom move to L.A. / Knowin’ she couldn’t take the pressure, now we all pray,” which ends his verse, really stings. Also: Given the questionable fiscal ideals running through this album, Kanye’s quip about raising his child to be Republican (“so everybody know he love white people”) is worth highlighting. It’s also very funny.

Jay’s verse balances ruthless honesty with old-fashioned schmaltz. “Sorry junior, I already ruined ya,” he begins, referencing the sobering fact that the child of Jay-Z is tabloid/gossip/blog fodder before it even exists (“You ain’t even alive, paparazzi pusuin’ ya”). He adopts some of Kanye’s confessional style (“Took me 26 years to find my path”), but he mostly imagines raising his son good and proper. “Look a man dead in his eyes so he know you talk truth, when you speak it” he advises Hova Jr., like a stern, loving taskmaster. “Give your word / Keep it.” The last few lines here are particularly honest and awesomely unsentimental, with Jay considering the possibility of divorce, which he hints at with a touching sense of propriety (“And if the day comes [when] I only see him on the weekend”). He ends “New Day” with a declaration that he’ll never be like his father and abandon his son. That’s a legacy he doesn’t want to continue.

There’s a feeling of a somber, Michael Mann movie crossed with Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror” to “New Day” — introspective grandstanding at its finest. And that’s aided by the RZA’s production, stretching out Nina Simone’s “Feelin’ Good” and then Auto-Tuning it, which has the strange effect of making the sample sound even more fragile. Perhaps there’s some triumph in those end-of-the-song horns, but not a whole lot. WTT changes here. It still gets more exorbitant at times, but it never feels fun after this song — at least not for very long.

Tags: jay-z, Kanye West