HIp-hop: Jay-Z and Kanye West, "Watch the Throne" (Roc-A-Fella)
When two of the biggest names in hip-hop collaborate on an album, is there any way it can live up to the hype? Probably not, and that's the burden this disc faces.
The two have done great work in the past. As a fledgling producer, West delivered soul-fired beats that underscored Jay-Z's 2001 classic, "The Blueprint." Now the two operate more or less as equals, with West having a hand in most of the production and Jay-Z taking a slightly larger share of the vocals on "Watch the Throne."
This makes for a sometimes difficult partnership. The production is often stellar, but it rarely takes the kind of chances West routinely takes on his solo albums. Instead, the idea is to create an album that lives up to its royal billing, a gilded collection of potential hits with lots of hooks and plenty of branding opportunities.
The tracks rely on an array of vocalists to supply hooks. Tellingly, the first vocal heard on the album is not from one of the two stars, but Odd Future's Frank Ocean, who provides the foreboding intro to "No Church in the Wild." Jay-Z and then West take turns describing a night of decadence. It's an oddly unambitious start. "Lift Off" follows, with Jay-Z's other half, Beyoncé, delivering a vocal that again feels disengaged.
On the album's recent single "Otis," a sharp Redding sample is wasted on a vapid litany of product-placement shout-outs from West and Jay-Z. Both hip-hop heroes were vocal backers of Barack Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign, but now that America is struggling to regain its economic bearings, they rhyme about their private jets, expensive watches and supermodel escapades.
The album's second half finds the duo expanding the scope of their concerns, at least touching on the difficulties of the African-American community. But inevitably the focus returns to the two icons. "I look in the mirror, my only opponent," Jay-Z raps in "Welcome to the Jungle." For "Murder to Excellence," the two-part tale of destitution and dominance ends with you-know-who on top.
Their guard lowers momentarily on "New Day." Jay-Z and West hypothetically address their unborn sons. There is a poignant undertow, as they own up to missteps and disappointments. West gets off the album's most darkly humorous lines, when he addresses his nationally televised remarks chastising President George W. Bush after the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005: "I might even make him be Republican, so that everyone know that he love white people," he says of his unborn child.
Chuck D once called hip-hop "the black CNN," and from Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" through N.W.A.'s "(Expletive) the Police," its self-regard always swaggered hand-in-hand with no-holds-barred street reporting. "This is our life," these classic hip-hop tracks declared, "deal with it." In many ways, West and Jay-Z are saying something similar here. But their approach is not to shine a spotlight on their community but to urge listeners to "watch the throne," and gaze in awe on the rappers' good fortune.