Wrestling With 'Watch The Throne' : The Record Fans and critics are speaking volumes about Jay-Z and Kanye West's new album. Guest host Allison Keyes speaks with NPR Music's Ann Powers and Frannie Kelley about why the album is such a big deal, and how some of lyrics reflect themes of family, gender roles and race.
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Wrestling With 'Watch The Throne'

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Wrestling With 'Watch The Throne'

Wrestling With 'Watch The Throne'

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ALLISON KEYES, host: Hip-hop kings Jay-Z and Kanye West released a new highly anticipated album this week called "Watch the Throne."


KANYE WEST: (Singing) Human being to the mob. What's a mob to a king? What's a king to a god? What's a God to a non-believer who don't believe in anything?

KEYES: That's "No Church in the Wild" from the new CD "Watch the Throne." This album was hyped to the max with the artists themselves leaking one of the tracks, then holding exclusive listening parties. The upshot, whether you like it or hate it, it has people buzzing.

Joining us to discuss "Watch the Throne" is NPR music critic Ann Powers and NPR Music's hip-hop expert, Frannie Kelley. They both write for the NPR Music blog The Record, where they posted their first reactions to what they call the most ambitious hip-hop album of the year. Welcome, ladies, to the program.

FRANNIE KELLEY: Thank you so much.

ANN POWERS: Thanks for having us.

KEYES: Ann, let me start with you. Why is this album such a big deal? I mean, all the hype around it, it was pretty much going to be a hit no matter what it sounded like, right?

POWERS: Absolutely. I mean, the first thing is, of course, the two rappers who basically do rule the scene.

KEYES: Right. Right.

POWERS: Kanye West and his former mentor, now peer, Jay-Z, collaborating officially on a full-length project rather than just on a track. But I think the real reason is the ambition that these guys sunk into this project. It was an event when it came out, it's an event to listen to the album all the way through. And they're trying their best to make a statement. It's debatable whether they achieve what they're setting out to do. But they definitely are trying.

KEYES: It's interesting that you said that. Frannie, I wonder what you think and what you're hearing from people on the street.

KELLEY: There's all these people involved. There are all these sort of motives and sort of possible interpretations of lyrics and partnerships and samples that, maybe it's overproduced, but I'm really happy about that. Because, you know, everybody's sort of slowly digesting and making these connections and then sort of pushing back on each other. Like, I feel totally differently about some songs today than I did on Monday morning.

KEYES: Let's have a listen to some songs from the record. This is from a track called "Otis," and if you listen really, really hard, you may recognize the samples from the song "Try a Little Tenderness" by Otis Redding.


OTIS REDDING: (Singing) Sq-sq-sq-squeeze her, don't tease her.

JAY-Z: (Rapping) Sounds so soulful, don't you agree?

REDDING: (Singing) Never leave her.

JAY-Z: (Rapping) I invented swag. Poppin' bottles, puttin' 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. Arm out the window through the city I maneuver slow. Cock back, snap back, see my cut through the holes.

KEYES: Frannie, what do you think about the way the sampling is used in this song?

KELLEY: If I were working on this song, I would've chosen a different sample from "Try a Little Tenderness," honestly. That piano part where it's, like, da-nah-nah-nah-nah, da-nah-nah-nah-nah, I would've built the whole song around that rather than Otis himself. But that's...

KEYES: You would've taken Otis' voice out of the mix, really?

KELLEY: Well, it's weird because the fact that they have Otis in there and that the whole thing is pretty, you know, it's recognizable that that's "Try a Little Tenderness," that's money. That is expensive to do and that's how you know these guys came to win. Like, they're not hiding these samples. They're paying full price. They're giving Otis a credit. They're getting in touch with the estate to get permission for that. And I wonder if that's a new definition of opulence in rap music.

KEYES: Interesting. 'Cause I have to say, some of the people I know that have listened to this, and I am among them, were kind of taken aback by the level of Otis used in here. And maybe it's a generational thing. I'm not 18, I'm not 22. But, Ann, I wonder what you think about it. Would you have used a different sample?

POWERS: I'm not 18 or 22 either.


POWERS: But I'd like to say, I mean, that's so fascinating what Frannie said about a new definition of opulence. I also think the key word is legacy. This effort by Jay-Z and Kanye West is an effort to firmly place themselves within the history of African-American not just music, but culture, politics, everything. And their open, blatant use of iconic voices, not just Otis Redding, Nina Simone, James Brown...

KEYES: Exactly.

POWERS: ...Curtis Mayfield. They're all there.

KEYES: Who had to get a featured credit, they used so much of that.

POWERS: Exactly. They're not hiding it. And as the music critic, Oliver Wang, pointed out, to Auto-Tune Nina Simone is to basically stage a coup on cultural history, right?

KEYES: Let's listen to just a little of that Nina Simone, it's a new day.


NINA SIMONE: (Singing) It's a new life for me. For me. For me.

WEST: (Rapping) Yeah, uh. 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 know he love white people. And I'll never let him leave his college girlfriend and get caught up with the groupies in the whirlwind. And I'll never let him ever hit the telethon. I mean even if people dyin' and the world ends.

KEYES: As you said, Auto-Tuned to the max. Frannie, opinions?

KELLEY: I like that song. I like that it's kind of a break in that album. It's kind of in the middle. It's a little bit quieter. It's RZA-produced, which is, you know, in the same way that certain samples help create this sort of idea of where Jay and Kanye sit in the continuum of black music, so does using certain producers. And, you know, when, on that track, each of them say me and the RZA connect, they're referring back to a Raekwon song that was really - on an album that was really important. And so it's like we know about soul music. We know about R&B music. But we know hip-hop.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes.

And we're talking about the new album "Watch the Throne" by Jay-Z and Kanye West with NPR Music critics Ann Powers and Frannie Kelley. I want to talk about another song on the album, because both of you, in your exchange, were a little annoyed by, shall we call it, Kanye's in-your-face sexism, sort of tough guy attitude.


WEST: (Rapping) She said, yeah, can we get married at the mall? I said, look, you need to crawl before you ball. Come and meet me in the bathroom stall. And show me why you deserve to have it all. That - crazy, ain't it, Jay?

JAY-Z: (Rapping) (unintelligible)

WEST: (Rapping) What she order, fish filet?

KEYES: Frannie, you wrote that Kanye 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 love song. What do you mean?

KELLEY: I mean that we all know that Kanye was engaged, and then that ended and that his mother died. And we know he's sad. Two albums ago, he made "808s and Heartbreak," which was all about his engagement imploding and then his mom dying. And we know that he has it in him to understand that women are people. And when he says things like you've got to crawl before you ball, and you want to prove it to me, meet me in the bathroom stall.

Like, we know that Kanye can get women. Like, women are interested in Kanye. I am interested in Kanye. Like, that's OK.


KELLEY: I don't need him to tell me...

KEYES: If he calls you after this...


KELLEY: I will give you my number on radio. I'm not scared. But I'm not going to play myself to get with him. And I don't appreciate it anymore. Like, I've been listening to hip-hop my entire life. I love it dearly. And sometimes, it's not even what he's saying. It's that he keeps saying it over and over and over again. And I'm like, if you have all that money, all that promotion behind you, basically all that volume, just say something a little bit different once in awhile.

KEYES: Ann, are you going to give him your number, too?

POWERS: It's interesting, because there's another track on this album called "Welcome to the Jungle," and I found myself thinking a lot about a bad boy I've been fond of in my listening history, W. Axl Rose of Guns and Roses. I think it's Jay who called himself the black Axl Rose, not Kanye. But Kanye's much more playing that role: damaged misogynist. In other words, he has trouble with women, because women have given him trouble.

But at this point, I mean, look at what Jay does on this record. First of all, he is worshipping at the shrine of his wife, Beyonce. There's some beautiful love songs to her on this - or love verses, anyway, to her.

KEYES: He kind of called - he called her Yoko Ono at one point.


JAY-Z: (Rapping) Be, be my Yoko Ono, rih rih complete the family. Imagine how that's gonna look front row at the Grammys.

KEYES: He called her his Yoko Ono.

POWERS: Exactly.

KEYES: He says she should, you know, she's so beautiful, she should be in a museum. You know, he is worshipping her, basically, and calling her - as his partner.

KELLEY: Kanye doesn't have that person in his life, I guess, right now. So what we're hearing is much more kind of cartoon versions of women.

POWERS: Right.

KELLEY: Also, it's interesting. Neither of them, as far as anyone knows, have any biological children, and that's a theme on this album, too.

KEYES: Very much so. In "New Day" they both talked a lot to their sons-to-be, which was very interesting, with Kanye starting out by saying that I'm going to make sure my son doesn't have an ego, as we heard in that track a few minutes ago.

KELLEY: Right.

KEYES: And Jay-Z says he's already ruined his son, because the paparazzi are looking for him before he's even born.

KELLEY: I hope they both have daughters.


POWERS: Actually, that's the funniest part, when Jay says, my little man - or daughter. Like, he pauses and then he's, like, OK, maybe that will happen. I will deal with that if that happens. But, I mean, these guys are a little bit old to be child-free at this point. And that's an interesting part of this project, because what do the men who have it all not have?

KEYES: They're not that old. Come on. They're not 60. Come on.

POWERS: They're not 60, but, you know, in the world of celebrity, usually, procreation happens earlier. And I'm not - hey. I'm not saying they need to or they should, but it's just an interesting fact that plays into the lyrics on this album and might have a relationship to his own family history. And then they project that out to think about: What does that mean in relationship to African-American men in the culture? That's another huge theme on this album. It's pretty deep, you know. It really is.

KEYES: Wait, on that note, I've got to ask you both a question. And, Ann, I want you to answer it first. You've written a lot of music journalism from a feminist perspective, and I wonder if it is a challenge to write about and discuss hip-hop as white women when you're listening to a style of music that is performed mostly by African-American men. Ann, you first.

POWERS: Oh, absolutely. It's definitely a challenge. And, you know, respect to anyone who tackles this subject in a serious way. But definitely an exchange I've been having with some of my friends who are writers who are African-American men, particularly is, you know, can you really know this experience? Can you really deeply empathize with where these guys are coming from?

And I guess all I would say - well, I would say two things. One is it's art, therefore it is meant to communicate beyond the confines of any one identity. And secondly, in a strange way, this album, it's as much about being a celebrity as it is being an African-American man. And that also is something that is hard to relate to. So I feel it's the responsibility of every artist to project beyond the confines of where they...

KEYES: Frannie, let me ask you the - sorry. Frannie, let me ask you the same question.

KELLEY: I don't find it a challenge. I think it's a privilege. It makes me happy every day to be able to listen to hip-hop, to be able to talk to people about it, to be able to hear what they have to say. People of every race have been involved with hip-hop from the get-go. You know, we grapple with the themes in the music just like, we grapple with the themes in rock and, you know, in jazz and in popular song. And there's nothing about it that makes me feel like I don't have a place. It's just the best thing.

KEYES: We were joined by NPR Music's hip-hop expert Frannie Kelley and NPR Music critic Ann Powers, talking about the Jay-Z and Kanye West album "Watch the Throne." Ann joined us from member station WUAL in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. And Frannie joined us from our New York bureau. Thanks, ladies.

KELLEY: Thank you so much.

POWERS: Thank you.


FRANK OCEAN: (Singing) Sweet king Martin, sweet queen Coretta, sweet brother Malcolm, sweet queen Betty, sweet Mother Mary.

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