August 10, 2011 18 comments
iTunes the Throne
There’s an excerpt from the closing monologue of Kanye West’s debut LP The College Dropout that candidly displays the dichotomous, paternal rapport that Jay-Z holds with Mr. West. On “Last Call”, Kanye reflects:
And he, uh, played the song
Cause he already spit his verse by the time I got to the studio
You know how he do it, one take. And he said
“Tell me what you think of this.”
And I heard it, and I was thinking like
‘Man, I really wanted more like of the simple type Jay-Z’
I ain’t want like the, the more introspective, complicated [Jay-Z]
In my personal opinion. So he asked me, “What you think of it?”
And I was like, “Man that shit tight,”
You know what I’m sayin’, man what I’mma tell him?
Over seven years has passed since that particular iteration of that memory was recounted. But, hindsight is certainly 20/20, and considering the shifted dynamic in our current social and musical climate, which one of these two is really bringing the dominant influence here? And, possibly more important thereof, which one of these two do you think is asking the other “Tell me what you think of this” nowadays?
One cannot approach Watch The Throne with the same acknowledgement of reference points that come with, say, a Clipse, or Cunninlynguists, or Little Brother album. While those duos, and trios, display the type of collaborative continuity that requires dual proficiency on each side, The Throne (what I assume is a working moniker for tour purposes) works on a different plane: Bravado before balance. Two massive ego’s, two massive bank accounts, two massive talents, two massive vessels of historical content; one album that represents not ONE of those attributes to their fullest.
Odd Future’s Frank Ocean is the first voice you’ll hear on Watch The Throne. There’s a great deal to read into with a statement like that, but from a musical standpoint, it’s a solid choice. “No Church in the Wild” isn’t brash and listless like Hov’s last album opener “What We Talkin’ About” from 2009’s The Blueprint 3, or as baroque and ceremoniously formatted as the pseudo-title track that opened My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy last year. This isn’t so much a call of arrival to the townspeople atop the highest precipice. No, this is more or less Jay and Ye clearing their throats.
Once the foundation is laid, though, what transpires is a mixed bag of ideas, concepts, and unabashed “what the fuck?” moments (Looking at you, “H*A*M”) that I’d thought these two would leave off their epic debut. “Lift Off”, what I gather was probably the proper intro, coasts on a well-executed, but directionless hook from Beyoncé. Lyrics about taking “it” to the “moon”… You get it. I mean, even “can we get much higher?” is more subtle in its straightforwardness. “Otis” falters for another reason. The reason being pure annoyance. The great thing about that particular piece of “Try A Little Tenderness” that Kanye samples here is that it’s a climaxing, guttural shout culled from three minutes of tension and pleading. If you loop it incessantly, it transforms from Otis Redding rising to his emotional and physical peak through song to, essentially, just some guy yelling gibberish over a couple tom drums.
Coincidentally, those early mistakes are on the surface. As WTT progresses, syntax begins to play a role and the failures are veiled better. If I could get through “That’s My Bitch” without finding something that made me cringe, just slightly, then I could probably call it, at the very least, a decent album cut. But, clumsy, not-all-that-humorous lyrics and a beat that sounds like it’s been laying around on a hard drive somewhere since ’06 does it no favors. Flux Pavilion’s “I Can’t Stop” gets a makeover for “Who Gon Stop Me”, which is getting pegged as “that dubstep track they threw in the middle of the album”, but, given its source material, let’s bypass that lazy summation just call it what it is: a weak track.
“Made In America” is probably the one song that I found myself trying the hardest to appreciate. When these guys step away from the posturing and the dick-stroking to cover some genuine material, things tend to get exponentially more interesting. This, on the other hand, is not. Frank Ocean returns for the weaker of his appearances to coo on, ad nauseum, about “baby Jesus” and name-check your usual black activists. Again, I cringe.
When Watch The Throne is bad, it’s awful, but it often redeems itself within fairly close proximity of its pitfalls. “Niggas In Paris” has my vote for Song Title of the Year and also showcases a ridiculously potent, throwback-wearing, State Property-era Jay-Z spitting quotables like “Psycho: I’m liable to go Michael. Take your pick: Jackson, Tyson, Jordan, Game 6”. Kanye matches that intensity to help mask the cheesiness of the Blades of Glory snippet. “Primetime”, a No I.D. produced, Orange Krush sampling jam is relegated to the bonus track section, but ends up being the highlight and one that I frequently return to.
“New Day” features quite possibly my favorite beat on WTT with a shape-shifted, Dilla-esque sample of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”. But, “Murder To Excellence” takes the crown here. It’s been noted that, when given genuine material, like the Danroy Henry case, Jay and Ye excel. From the echoing acoustic guitar opening, to the tribal breakdowns, to the little village kids that carry the track through its various movements; it’s everything I expected to get from this album. And it only occurs once. So, you can excuse my bitter tone.
Watch The Throne doesn’t feel like a Jay-Z/Kanye West collaboration album. And it certainly doesn’t feel like a Jay-Z solo album. Honestly, this has all the cinematic pastiche and pageantry of Kanye West’s latest run of regal rap. There are no two bigger stars in hip-hop than these guys as of right now, but there’s clearly a more momentous star. Kanye’s got a full head of steam going and, even though he comes up short comparatively in skill to Hov here, he’s in the drivers seat. So, what’s a man in Sean Carter’s shoes to do when the now dominantly ascending protege wants to open the album with an up-and-coming LA songwriter? Or, try his hand at dubstep? Or, close another album with ANOTHER Mr. Hudson feature? Few know what he may have said to justify his position, but, I bet I know what he was thinking:
Man, what I’mma tell him?