For two of hip-hop’s kings, the stakes on “Watch the Throne” were as high as ever.
Months of hype built as Jay-Z and Kanye West (henceforth known collectively as “The Throne,” the moniker the duo has adopted for their upcoming tour) labored on their all-star collaboration, but the album seemed to be stuck in development hell. Eight months after it was announced, “Watch the Throne” has finally landed, and to say it lives up to the hype is, well, an understatement.
The album’s first track features the smooth hooks of silky Frank Ocean. “No Church in the Wild” gets serious, and Ocean’s other appearance, “Made in America,” a sublime and powerful track, is quite possibly the best piece on the album.
The album’s next single, “Lift Off,” is reminiscent of “All of the Lights” from West’s last album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” Beyoncé delivers the chorus over rousing horns, though her verses get repetitive and laborious and the track ultimately falls somewhat short of the mark.
With “Otis,” the second single off the album, The Throne stripped down to basics and produced a wonderful track, balancing boastful verses against samples of Otis Redding’s easy voice. West delivers one of his best verses ever, rapping, “I made ‘Jesus Walks,’ I’m never going to hell / Couture level flow, it’s never going on sale / Luxury rap, the Hermes of verses / Sophisticated ignorance, write my curses in cursive.”
The Throne seems to have taken a liking to the dubstep movement as two tracks, “Who Gon Stop Me” and a little more vaguely in the catchy ballad “Why I Love You,” have noticeable dupstep influences.
“Watch the Throne” strikes a nice chord between serious and fun. Tracks like “New Day” are reminiscent of West’s early albums, where he raps, “And I’ll never let my son have an ego / He’ll be nice to everyone, wherever we go / I mean, I might even make ‘em be Republican / So everybody know he love white people.”
Lighter, somewhat disappointing tracks include “Ni**as in Paris,” which features some of Jay-Z’s best verses on the album, the bland “Gotta Have It,” and “Welcome to the Jungle,” which doesn’t, in fact, reference the song of the same name by Guns N’ Roses at all. The catchy “That’s My Bitch,” however, has plenty of replay value, despite its silly title.
Tracks like “Murder to Excellence,” though, are anthems that complement the more fluffy fare, faintly channeling the Jay-Z of “99 Problems.”
“H•A•M,” the album’s first single, was released in January to lukewearm reception, and is ultimately dropped from the album’s final set of 12 tracks. Relegated to the deluxe edition’s set of four bonus tracks instead, “H•A•M,” like the three other bonus tracks, is not a particularly compelling or worthwhile listen.
If “Watch the Throne” can be faulted for anything, it’s a mild lack of imagination. Traces of dubstep were a nice breath of fresh air, but apart from the concept of the album, the rest of it lacked any real innovation of consequence. Given The Throne’s status as being among the most elite and cutting-edge producers in popular music, that’s quite a disappointment.
Still, “Watch the Throne” has the thumbprints of Jay-Z and Kanye West all over it, which on their own would ordinarily account for a successful album, but combined makes this grandiose clash of titans an instant classic.
Striking a pleasing balance between pop fun and, at times, melancholy seriousness, “Watch the Throne” – a game-changer almost assured to inspire more big-name collaboration albums – is the product we came to expect of the duo who sits comfortably on the throne of the rap kingdom.
Verdict: 4 stars (out of 5)