A CEO and a sex addict walk into a recording studio—stop me if you’ve heard this one before. You probably have, actually, in a number of ways. Jay-Z (the CEO) teamed up with sex addict extraordinaire R. Kelly to release mega-albums in the early aughts. On Watch the Throne, his partner is Kanye West, mega-producer, controversy whore, sex addict and professional self-loather, instead of disintegrating, perv-of-the-month and R&B chart-topper R. Kelly.
Things have changed since Jay’s early 2000s collaboration with Kelly. (1) Jay-Z is even more famous, popular and rich than he was then. (2) Having learned from the critical lambasting that collaboration received, Jay-Z insisted that he and West work together in person, rather than sending each other tracks to work on as he did with Kelly.
Frankly, I wouldn’t want to hear the version of Watch the Throne created without face-to-face sessions, because the version that exists seems impossibly disconnected, directionless and as hollow as what you would expect a long-distance collaboration would sound like. Perhaps it is because West and Jay-Z recorded the album in spurts in opulent hotel suites across Europe and the United States. Perhaps it is because both men have such large egos that, even in person, they refuse to let down their guards to compromise on their visions.
Regardless, Watch the Throne only occasionally manages to deliver on what either man is great at. West’s My Dark Twisted Fantasy production style—progressive, triumphant, self-indulgent—pops up in only a few places, and when it does it is heavy on self-indulgent—not so much progressive or triumphant.
Jay-Z mostly fails to deliver memorable lines; if you’ve heard his story once, you have heard it a thousand times: Ex-pusher from Brooklyn turned CEO thanks his “futuristic flow.” Now he is so ahead of the game that he doesn’t have to have beefs or flaunt his wealth, but he still does both. A particular line from “Jocking Jay-Z,” a B-side off his last album, sums it up pretty well: “Haters ask why I’m still talking money shit/Cause I like money bitch!”
So both men do talk about money and power, and, surprisingly, West provides the best lines of the album, spitting out diatribes about his kinks, cocaine binges with strippers and self-doubt combined with his braggadocio. The two most functional tracks on the album, “HAM” and “Niggas in Paris,” take the pair’s boasts and lay them over epic tracks—but their boasts unfortunately remain mundane. The best Jay-Z has for the slinky “Niggas in Paris” is the hook “I ball so hard mother fuckers want to fine me.” Yep, the song plays off the fact that Jay, a minority stake owner in the Nets, visited the Kentucky Wildcats’ locker room, earning the Nets a fine for breaking rules about owners fraternizing with college players.
Thankfully, the song has some intentionally humorous moments. It opens with a sample from Will Farrell’s Blades of Glory figure-skating comedy: “We skate to one song and one song only!” perhaps acknowledging the absurdity of the pair’s team-up and competing egos. Later on the track, West raps, “Doctors say I’m the illest/Cause I’m suffering from realness/Got my niggas in Paris/And they going gorillas, huh!” followed by another Blades of Glory sample and an exchange between John Heder and Will Farrell: “I don’t even know what that means! No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative!”
When the boys do try to get legitimately provocative, or talk about something other than how rich and powerful they are, they either fail in embarrassing ways or simply forget themselves and continue to boast.
The auto-tuned hook on “No Church in the Wild” is cringeworthy: “What’s a god to a nonbeliever who don’t believe in anything?” The awkwardness continues on “That’s My Bitch,” where West complains about having to explain to his “bitch” how to pronounce Basquiat. And later Jay-Z laments not seeing colored women in the Museum of Modern Art: “I mean Marilyn Monroe, she’s quite nice/But why all the pretty icons always white?” Jay continues avoiding calling his wife Beyonce a bitch by heaping praise on her beauty and wealth until finally he, well, calls her his bitch.
On “Murder to Excellence,” the pair rap about headlines that tout black-on-black violence and being depressed by the news. Finally West raps, “New crib, watch a movie ‘cause ain’t nothing on the news but the blues/Hit the mall, pick up some Gucci, now ain’t nothing new but your shoes.” And there it is: the entire paradox of the album laid bare.
Watch the Throne is a conflicted album: two men obsessed with transcending their limits, themselves, hood culture and both of them failing miserably to do so. If two of the richest black men in the world can’t stop obsessing over material wealth and being able to brag about it in order to make the artistic statement they so desperately seem to want to, then how can you expect an average teenager to break the cycle? The answer both men deliver here, and especially pointedly on RZA-produced-track “New Day,” is—you can’t. It may be a letdown, but at least they are talking about it.