Ann Powers

Wrestling With 'Watch The Throne'

Jay-Z and Kanye West, laughing, from a series of photos on Jay-Z's web site taken during the making of Watch the Throne. i i

hide captionJay-Z and Kanye West, laughing, from a series of photos on Jay-Z's web site taken during the making of Watch the Throne.

Courtesy of the artists
Jay-Z and Kanye West, laughing, from a series of photos on Jay-Z's web site taken during the making of Watch the Throne.

Jay-Z and Kanye West, laughing, from a series of photos on Jay-Z's web site taken during the making of Watch the Throne.

Courtesy of the artists

After months of anticipation, Jay-Z and Kanye West released their collaborative album Watch the Throne on iTunes at midnight on Monday. Does it live up to the gold-leaf hype? Do we even want it to? The Record's critic, Ann Powers, and editor Frannie Kelley listened and tried to make sense of the year's most ambitious hip-hop release.

Hey Frannie —

Well, I delayed the inevitable by half a day, but finally kicked another deadline to the curb and sat down to listen to Watch the Throne.

First impression: I feel bullied. This is one aggro outing! With Jay and 'Ye hissing at each other like cage match wrestlers in a Tower of Doom, and so many top tier producers out to dominate the slate, it's just too much at first. I want this album to settle into a rhythm I can absorb ... and I guess it does, given the effort's overall intensity. But the mood is almost oppressive. Also, unresolved anger issues? That's how I hear most of Kanye's rhymes, at first. Jay comes off as more reflective. Or maybe that early spit from Kanye demanding a possible bride-to-be to "show me why you deserve to have it all" in "a bathroom stall" just put me off.

I know this album's going to be required listening for months to come. Am I going to feel happier about that in a bit? Or do I just need to learn to digest this big, bloody royal feast?

I await your thoughts,

akp

—-

Ann.

It is very loud. Kanye sounds like he's shouting himself hoarse most of the time. Jay is more composed, but he sounds stressed out to me.

I think it's better than we had any right to expect, but I still haven't heard either of them say anything that nobody else could say (except maybe Jay talking about standing next to the President), or make a beat that nobody else could make, you know? I mean, they just jacked that Cassius song for "Why I Love You." Why have all that power and cash and volume if you're not going to do anything with it except collect more?

And yeah, Kanye's making me mad. I noticed the verse you mention too — the "you gotta crawl before you ball part" line had my head at 45 degrees this morning on the train. Please. He would be so much more fly if he stopped detailing how bad girls play themselves in order to get with him. Look, we all know you got your heart broken. Stop fronting and write a damn love song once every ten years.

Man, I was hopeful. Last week I was saying maybe they put out "Otis" to lower our expectations. They're such politicians.

My favorite songs are the ones I've been listening to for months, though — "That's My Bitch" and "The Joy" with that Pete Rock beat — so maybe the rest will grow on me?

Were there any tracks that felt like they had room for you in them?

F

—-

Good question, Frannie.

Young Frank Ocean seems pretty skilled at making room for listeners — especially female ones. The rising R&B star is featured on a couple of standout tracks here; I especially like the feel of "Made in America," which begins with a loving litany of black saints ("Sweet King Martin ... Sweet King Coretta,") sung by Ocean, and which included this endearing Jay couplet: "I pledge allegiance to my Grandma/For that banana pudding, our piece of Americana."

That song opens up one of the main themes throughout Watch the Throne: the idea of family. Both of these so-far (as we know) childless men repeatedly muse on fatherhood here: 'Ye invokes his most consistent muse, his late mother, and at one point Jay calls wife Beyonce his Yoko Ono while stating that protege Rihanna "completes the family." A palpable sense of anxiety about personal legacy invades the project, intertwining with the powerful assertion of artistic dominance.

The idea of family opens up to and backs up against the idea of legacy in a fascinating way in terms of the music, too. All-star producers bring their best ideas to the table on Watch the Throne — The Neptunes and Swizz Beats do their best work in a while, and the union of West and the RZA on one track seems particularly fortuitous. In several cases, these titans of hip-hop refer back to the central icons of mid-century African-American music: "Gotta Have It" samples James Brown; "New Day" is based around Nina Simone's most famous song, "Feelin' Good"; "Otis" pays homage to Otis Redding; and "The Joy," which I love too, dips so heavily into a Curtis Mayfield track that he gets a "featuring" credit.

These vocal touchstones of black history are chopped, screwed and manipulated so that they sometimes don't even sound like themselves. It's a bold move by Jay and 'Ye and their collaborators, and one that I think makes this album more than just an ego exercise. Trying to ground themselves in the history of this music, the two stars force themselves to confront what they mean — as moguls, symbols, creative spirits — within the larger frame of American history. Do they rise to the challenge, lyrically? On first listen I'm not sure. What do you think?

akp

—-

Hey Ann,

Despite the lineage mapped by the production, the album sounds cold to me. It's not what I wanted, but it has to be that way, I think. I would love it if Kanye could make a beat as intimate as the one on "All Falls Down," but he's not who he was in 2004. I would love it if Jay could be as playful — as in thrall to wordplay — as he was on "Hard Knock Life," but he's not who he was in 1998. They have made a lot of money and entered into some partnerships with very powerful people since then. I hope they don't think rapping about the big time makes these songs more important than their earlier work.

I understand both Jay and 'Ye have to win with this album. Yes, they risk their legacy as individual musicians. Watch the Throne has been in the works so long there are already potshot songs in the market. But we've never had anybody as huge as the two of them in hip-hop, and — selfishly — I wish they understood how bad we need them to give us songs we can use.

Of course Kanye and Jay have anger issues. Jay's dedicating "Murder To Excellence" to Danroy Henry, the Pace University student who was shot and killed by Westchester cops last fall. He says there aren't enough black people way up high where he lives – except Will Smith and Oprah [that's how I read the line "Shoutout to O," but I guess he could mean Obama, though he calls him "the Pres" elsewhere] – and we need a million more. There still have only ever been 10 black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

Kanye remains defensive about his post-Katrina telethon outburst (which he should just own), and he's calling women, himself and his car cold. I wish they would name names, because it starts wearing on the listener if it sounds like they're just blaming everybody. Who is it that won't let them live now?

There are all these layers to the production (and cooks in the kitchen) and the samples are so long we recognize the originals without even thinking about it – but the sound is brittle. I want more meat on the bones. The bass is so dry, except in "Otis" on the 3 the 2, which is the single best part of that song.

With all this winning they're doing, what am I supposed to do? Where are people going to listen to these songs? Obviously in New York we'll hear them on the radio. And MTV will drop a video or two before the Jersey Shore season finale or whatever. But are these getting-ready-to-go-out songs? Or makeout jams? When do I get to dance? I think a really good hip-hop song is a model for how to be excellent. And I don't hear how these songs give me — as a regular human being — anything I can use for that.

Yes, I think both are worried about their legacy. I think Jay's idea of what his could be – and what threatens it – is more clear than Kanye's, especially on "New Day." He's also older. He's saying he'll be better at 42 than he was at 24 – which is, unfortunately, inaccurate if we're talking about his lyricism.

The more I listen, the more I hope Big Boi beats his charges so he can get back in there and make another album.

F

—-

Frannie, you're killing me!

I'm starting to want to love this album, just because such a serious effort does elevate the game. Supergroups and dynamic duos often feel like nothing but marketing, but every generation gets one or two that really goes beyond money-grabbing to define a genre or a historical moment. Baby boomers had Cream and CSNY. Country outlaws had the Highwaymen. Goths got the Bad Seeds; grunge kids could claim Temple of the Dog. Riot grrrls now have WILD FLAG.

Collaboration is the essence of hip-hop, yet this union leaps beyond business as usual partly because it Batman-and-Robins the genre's two most heroic innovators — heroic by commercial standards, but also by temperament, unlike more tricksterish contenders like Snoop Dogg and Lil Wayne or more self-questioning ones like latter-day Eminem. As Hua Hsu notes in his excellent Grantland essay about Watch the Throne, throughout this album the two stars present themselves as the solution to an international history of ills. It's unbelievably self-aggrandizing — and disturbing. When will they look beyond each other's eyes?

Your final note makes me dream of another stellar team: Big Boi and Andre 3000, the great OutKast, currently lost to us apparently because of Andre's artistic indecision and now perhaps because of Antwan's new legal problems. (That arrest really made sad. The hardest working man in Atlanta hip-hop, busted for illegal Viagra, really?) That organic collaboration always reached happily outward, engaging with histories both political and musical, and using one key quality absent from Watch the Throne — humor — to open ears and minds.

Ambition is admirable in artists, as in citizens; self-importance is a problem. For me, it's going to take a little time to figure out whether Watch the Throne honors the former or sinks under the weight of the latter.

akp

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