Copyright ©2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

One of the year's most anticipated albums is finally out. "Watch the Throne" is a collaboration between the rap superstars Jay-Z and Kanye West. And for a few days, it's online only before it hits the shelves. That's helped cut down on the usual pre-release leaks, so anticipation had built to a fever pitch. Oliver Wang weighs in on whether or not the album lives up to its expectations.

OLIVER WANG: My favorite part of "Watch the Throne" was waiting for it to come out. With no leaks and no advances, we were all reduced to waiting together - resurrecting the memory of rushing record store doors the day of release. The grim irony is that today, the cost of a leak-proof digital release is borne by those same brick and mortar stores cut out of the "Watch the Throne" sales action.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "NO CHURCH IN THE WILD")

WANG: From a fan's point of view, though, there was something giddy in the collective experience of counting down the minutes until the album went live.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "NO CHURCH IN THE WILD")

KANYE WEST: (Singing) Human beings in a mob. What's a mob to a king? What's a king to a god? What's a god to a non-believer?

WANG: But after the downloading comes the listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "NO CHURCH IN THE WILD")

WEST: (Rapping) Tears on the mausoleum floor, blood stains the coliseum doors, lies on the lips of a priest, Thanksgiving disguised as a feast.

WANG: At the very least, "Watch the Throne" is competent, the predictable product of two immense talents who've already spent 10 years working well together. In fact, the two rappers play so nicely with one another, it's easy to forget the subplot that Jay-Z used to be Kanye's mentor. But on "Watch the Throne," it's clearly Kanye's musical vision that reigns supreme.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "WHO'S GON STOP ME")

WANG: As with his last album, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy," Kanye and his co-producers push a big, plush pop sound weighted with layers of synthesizer swells and piercing vocal samples.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "WHO'S GON STOP ME")

WEST: (Rapping) I can't stop. This is something like the Holocaust, millions of our people lost, I can't stop...

WANG: If Jay-Z seems content to let Kanye stir the album sonically, big brother's contribution comes from finally whipping his flow back into shape.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "THAT'S MY BITCH")

WEST: (Rapping) Uh, Picasso was alive he woulda made her, thats right (beep) Mona Lisa can't fade her. I mean Marilyn Monroe, she's quite nice. But why all the pretty icons always all white?

WANG: The biggest problem with "Watch the Throne" is that with all that competence and goodwill, there isn't much to accelerate the album past cruise control. There's no real tension or conflict and, least of all, hunger. Instead, you have two pop superstars heading luxury raps about their access to excess. Excitement is generated from swinging for the fences, not in the victory lap that follows.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "OTIS")

WEST: (Rapping) I invented swag. Popping bottles, putting supermodels in the cab, proof. I guess I got my swagger back, truth. New watch alert, Hublot's, or the big face Rollie - I got two of those.

WANG: On the other hand, tortured introspection has been a specialty of both men. And one of the album's most compelling moments comes from their self-reflective ode to imaginary future children.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "NEW DAY")

WEST: (Rapping) 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 him be Republican so everybody knows he loves white people. And I'll never let him leave his college girlfriend, and get caught up with the groupies in the whirlwind...

WANG: That song aside, almost nothing else on "Watch the Throne" would rank among the best of either artist's catalog. There's no sustained sense of exhilaration let alone transcendent magic, especially for an album that nakedly aspires to make history. In the end, it's a decent project by two good artists. There's no reason that should feel like a disappointment, so why does it?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "WHY I LOVE YOU")

NORRIS: Our reviewer, Oliver Wang, writes the music blog "Soul Sides." He's a professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.