When two of the biggest icons in not only the hip-hop industry but the entire music industry come together for a collaborative album, a number of ways to approach it are presented. Jay-Z and Kanye West are undoubtedly “rap royalty”; their cumulative record sales, chart dominance and soaring fandom serve as evidence of both financial and critical fame. It was surprising then to observe that many hip-hop heads I knew, including myself, were paying little attention to the hype that it was demanding, or maybe deserved, in its preceding months. The response to both “H.A.M.” and “Otis” was more repelling than attracting, however these tracks only represent one level of the many that make up Watch The Throne, and for this reason it makes the album worth checking out. There’s a lot to read into here if you wish, alternatively there is a lot to just simply escape into.
NOTE: All Tracks are streaming only
[wpaudio url=”http://wordisbond.data.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/01-No-Church-In-The-Wild-Feat.-Frank-Ocean.mp3″ text=”Jay-Z & Kanye West ft. Frank Ocean – No Church In The Wild” dl=”0″]
The opening track, No Church In The Wild, is brilliant. Any doubts that had formulated in my mind about this being a finance driven cash cow were immediately swept aside by the broodingly gothic production and Frank Ocean’s hook, “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/”. There are a lot of potent ingredients in there, laying the foundations for a potentially strong narrative to the album. Jay-Z’s opening line continues the tone “Tears on the mausoleum floor/ Blood stains the coliseum doors/” right through to Kanye’s finishing line “When we die, the money we can’t keep/ But we prolly spend it all ‘cus the pain ain’t cheap… Preach”. It’s a shame to find then, that not much of the album follows suit. Another way of putting it; it’s like David Lynch directed this pre-title sequence, only for Michael Bay to carry on the rest of the film.
Lift Off takes on a whole different aesthetic, the production switches to some “save the world” type heroic hyperbolism. It’s an overpowering solar flare of energy that successfully engulfs the fractured lyrics of Jay-Z and Kanye, however Beyoncé’s hook prevails through, unfortunately this itself is akin to the simplistic nature of its contemporary pop music peers, and pales in comparison to Frank Ocean’s prior effort.
From here on out the album largely becomes a repetitive offering of the kind of things that make hip-hop the subject of stereotyping. “She said ‘Ye can we get married at the mall/” portrays a new house of God founded on consumerism, and much of the manic Who Gon’ Stop Me paints the picture of a no remorse barge to “the top”. It highlights, consciously or not, the uncontrollable nature of the American Dream with the production similarly flying off the hinges midway through the track as Jay-Z provides some exposition on his harsh struggle “Middle finger to my old life, special shout-out to my old head/ If it wasn’t for your advice, a ni**a would have been so dead” that regular listeners will be familiar with.
[wpaudio url=”http://wordisbond.data.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/08-Who-Gon-Stop-Me.mp3″ text=”Jay-Z & Kanye West – Who Gon Stop Me” dl=”0″]
The album becomes so saturated in braggadocio that it becomes difficult to see anything likeable about the protagonists. Preventing it from tipping right off the edge however are a handful of tracks that show some humility. The RZA produced New Day is like a sober “morning after the night before”, where Jay-Z and Kanye come across as introverts, reflecting on life experiences and discussing responsibilities outside of the self-absorbed lifestyle largely put across elsewhere on the album. “And I’ll never let my son have an ego/ He’ll be nice to everyone wherever we go” begins a scripture of wisdom by Kanye where he addresses many “controversies” of his life in the media’s lens over the contemplative beat, which sounds atypical for The Abbot, but is highly likeable. On Welcome To The Jungle, despite the lacklustre production by Swizz Beatz, Jay-Z drops lines like “I’m a tortured soul, I live in disguise” which come across hard as they juxtapose strongly against much else of what he rhymes about on other tracks.
[wpaudio url=”http://wordisbond.data.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/10-Murder-To-Excellence.mp3″ text=”Jay-Z & Kanye West – Murder to Excellence” dl=”0″]
The reflective commentary is further explored, albeit more aggressively, over the pounding drums of Murder To Excellence, which also serves as Swizz’s redemption. Kanye addresses the self-destructing pursuit of wealth on a societal level, “And I’m from the murder capital, where they murder for capital” going on to draw the well paralleled comparison of inner-city violence to that of foreign wars also over financial security. It still doesn’t manage to shake off the boastful bragging however, which continues to pull down what could be so much more.
Nearing the end of the album, Made In America adopts a quietly triumphant “after the dust has settled” type quality. Returning to the subject of hard earned dreams, Jay-Z rhymes “For that banana pudding, our piece of Americana/ Our apple pie was supplied through Arm & Hammer”. The track highlights the undeniable success that both artists have achieved, but with less arrogance than the majority of the album.
[wpaudio url=”http://wordisbond.data.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/12-Why-I-Love-You-Feat.-Mr-Hudson.mp3″ text=”Jay-Z & Kanye West ft. Mr. Hudson – Why I Love You” dl=”0″]
Why I Love You, with its synth-heavy production featuring Mr. Hudson on the anthem-like hook and rapid-fire drums, returns to the “what could have been” titular concept as Jay-Z opens by addressing usurpers to his monarchy with a “King Kong ain’t got shit on me!” type defiance. The shadowing paranoia of a lonely king is conveyed “Caeser didn’t see it so he ceased to exist/ So the ni**a that killed him had keys to his shit”. The two go back and forth with a defensive stance on their musical dominion, cementing their bond “Am I my brother’s keeper?/ (Only if that ni**a don’t creep up)” as they stand united in their reign. In a summer where many hip-hop fans have observed candidly the pain and difficulty of partnerships in the music industry (Q-Tip and Phife Dawg) it’s hard not to feel good about these two artists who end the album on a “us against the world” mentality, as for now at least fans can revel in their synergy.
Like I said at the start of the review, if you wish to read deeper there is much between the lines. However if you want to subscribe to the decadence/hedonism of the lifestyle portrayed there is also a lot to take away; it’s no surprise that the bulk of the content is what it is as both artists clearly have much to celebrate and for those who wish to listen, the album could be considered a treat. Personally, the album shows sparks of brilliance at times, a potential to explore a more meaningful narrative which, considering the artists competency, makes it a shame that they didn’t do more.
NOTE: All Tracks are streaming only
[easyreview title=”Word Is Bond Rating” cat1title=”Lyrics” cat1detail=”Largely repetitive” cat1rating=”2″ cat2title=”Production” cat2detail=”Very high budget sound with a few outstanding tracks” cat2rating=”4″ cat3title=”Originality” cat3detail=”Nothing ground breaking presented” cat3rating=”2″ cat4title=”Replayability” cat4detail=”Some tracks will stay in rotation, however not much will be immortalised” cat4rating=”3″ summary=”Falls short of its potential, but it’s a worthwhile listen”]