Weekly Review: Hip-Hop icons collaborate for No. 1 album

By Ransom Cozzillio
August 30, 2011

Hip-Hop royalty has returned. And while no one is sure if the throne was ever truly vacant, the legendary Jay-Z and the mercurially talented Kanye West have teamed up to do what they both do exceptionally: produce a best-selling album that raps down at the rest of us.

Jay-Z and Kanye West top Billboard charts with their new album. --MCT

“Watch the Throne,” which debuted at No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard top 200, is Kanye and Jay-Z’s first collaborative album and seems to both beg and answer the question, “What happens when two of the genre’s biggest and most unattainable stars share the spotlight?”

The answer is an album that is both supremely arrogant and supremely listenable. While neither star could be considered a model of restraint, “Watch the Throne” brings their ivory tower to new heights.

While the financial world seems to crumble around us, Kanye and Jay-Z have not only failed to take notice, but they have managed to distill their isolation into an incredibly compelling rap album.

“Watch the Throne” seems to echo with a rich hubris from the gilded cover through most of the track list. Every aspect of this album; lyrics, guest artists, production, all thoroughly succeed in “going big.”

Songs like “Gotta Have It,” “Who Gon Stop Me?” and “H.A.M.” ring with lush melodies and drip with a braggadocio that reminds us how separate these artists really are, both in talent and success. Theirs is a world that very seldom intersects with our own.

Lyrics such as “LOL to white America, assassinate my character, money matrimony, yeah, they tryina’ break my marriage up” and “Watch the Throne, don’t step on our robe, bad enough we let you step on our globe” assault us with more than a mere laundry list of accomplishments. Far from simply lording wealth over us, they show a genuine disdain for the culture that made them and any that would dare undermine them.

Despite the prickly, yet euphonic casing of boastful angst, “Watch the Throne” does, at times, offer us a slightly more human element.

In “Murder to Excellence,” the duo laments the mounting death toll and culture of violence they both rose from. It warns of the stifling effect the murder culture can have on the black community and looks to a day when people no longer have to “escape” as they did.

“New Day,” possibly the most approachable and relatable track on the album, is directed to the future children of both artists and outlines the world they hope to offer their progeny. It expresses without pretention or veil, the sentiments most fathers hope to pass on. It suggests that maybe all the pomp isn’t just for them. And then, the glimpse is gone.

On to another song, where the soaring melodies, cavernous baselines and clever sampling remind us that while Jay-Z may steal the show lyrically and conceptually on many songs, the album’s production is pure Kanye.

Never one for understatement, Kanye picks up “Watch the Throne” right where he left off after “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” bringing his unique blend of eclectic and grandiose production values.

Playing perfectly to Kanye’s M.O., “Watch the Throne” often teeters on the precipice of over-production. At times, the sampling and background tracks threaten to obscure the album but always stop enjoyably short of marring the final product.

The production is played adeptly, using dubstep drops, Latin choral chants and even samples of Otis Redding and Will Ferrell to diversify each track. Far from simply setting the pace for lyrics, the tracks bring a scope and magnitude to an album whose creators deserve both.

Ultimately, “Watch the Throne” brings exactly what listeners and fans dared to expect from icons like Jay-Z and Kanye West, an album that sees no ceiling and relishes its largess without becoming unbearable.

While some may begrudge them their conceits, “Watch the Throne” brings what the very best in rap have to offer, both lyrically and musically, and does it just a little bit bigger.

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Ransom Cozzillio

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