August 24, 2011

Test Spins: Watch the Throne

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How could Kanye be expected to follow up a work like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, his critically acclaimed fifth studio album, released last November? He outdid himself the only way possible: by releasing an even larger-than-life album, a joint project with the legendary rap icon Jay-Z. Together, the duo produced Watch the Throne, a gilded and bombastic dozen songs that affirm each rapper’s position on top of the industry through a relative inundation of hubris and showmanship.

With egos as big as Jay-Z and Kanye’s in the room, one might expect artistry to go down the drain and for the album to become a pissing contest. What’s amazing about the collaboration is the relatively clean merger of styles; Kanye’s raw feature-heavy beats provide an ideal backdrop for Jay-Z’s laid-back style, and Jay, to some minor extent, seems to tame the oftentimes outlandish and nonsensical Yeezy. The two swap verses at times, but also occasionally go line-for-line, as seen on the end of “Why I Love You (feat. Mr. Hudson).” High-profile guest appearances also abound, ranging from a Beyonce chorus to RZA production to an Otis Redding sample. As Kanye previously displayed on Dark Twisted Fantasy, it is possible for superstars to feed off one another, although it remains to be seen whether or not the dynamic duo can maintain its amity through promotion and touring. The union of the two superstars makes Watch the Throne occasionally feel like a joint defense for the two’s inflated presence in the hip-hop world, flaunting their ability to make overkill work.

The normally braggadocious pair keep the album within proportion through the inclusion of a few more reflective and soulful tracks, the best of which is “New Day,” a letter written to the rappers’ unborn children. A fantastically altered Nina Simone sample graces the song, maintaining a reflective mood for Kanye and Jay as the two relive past mistakes and lament their public visages. Speaking about his unborn son, Yeezy states “I’ll never let him hit the telethon/ I mean even if people dyin’ and the world ends,” referring to the telethon in which he made the ridiculous claim that George W. Bush doesn’t like black people. The next verse features a pensive Jay promising not to walk out on his son like his father did. The song, along with a few others, definitely serve to humanize what is otherwise an entirely over-the-top album.

While many tracks may be smashing successes, there are a number of duds and spoiled features. “Made in America” is the most notable of these failures. An out-of-place Frank Ocean chorus hyperbolizes about “Sweet baby Jesus” atop a beat peppered by a sound remnant of the fasten-seatbelt warning on airplanes. The track is completely unlistenable. Likewise, on “Why I Love You,” Jay sullies a fantastic Mr. Hudson hook with an off-putting first verse that fails to create the anticipation the track needs. Other songs, like “That’s My Bitch” and “Welcome to the Jungle,” can only be described as entertaining and mediocre, a label that just isn’t going to cut it on an album by hip-hop’s self-proclaimed kings.

Overall, one cannot help but enjoy some portion of the album. Tracks like “Gotta Have It” are simply exhilarating. The presence of the two heavyweights with deep floor-shaking bass is tremendous. “Who Gon’ Stop Me,” alternatively, shows why people love Kanye West’s lunacy — a wildly inappropriate chorus separates outrageous hype verses. “No Church in the Wild” affirms the decision to include Frank Ocean. He delivers a stellar hook, backed by a crawling bass line. Watch the Throne will no doubt leave any hip-hop fans with at least a few tracks to bob their heads to.

Indeed prominent names seem to be colliding in the hip-hop world. Today’s rap albums seem to be riddled with features and one of the summer’s other major hip-hop releases came from Bad Meets Evil, a group consisting of Royce da 5’9” and Eminem. One may ask, though, if these partnerships can really live up to the expectations they create, especially in the case of Jay-Z and Kanye — arguably the genres two biggest icons? They may not, but that would be an unreal feat. Listeners must enjoy Watch the Throne for what it is: a solid album that features two great musicians in a variety of highs and lows.

Original Author: Adam Lerner