Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Watch the Throne: Hip Hop Royalty?

When I found out Kanye West and Jay Z were about to release a joint album, I was excited. Then I heard 'H.A.M'. Still, I let it go, because I know Kanye is at his creative peak and, according to popular opinion, Jay Z is the best rapper currently working in the industry. This received wisdom is clearly untrue. If we look back at the last three albums of his career, we experience nothing but disappointment. The Black Album was the last LP that could be considered truly great, and that was released in 2003! Kingdom Come was a disaster, American Gangster was a return to form of sorts, but ultimately forgettable, while Blueprint 3 redefined the concept of an average project.
Kanye, on the other hand, is fresh from releasing the best album of last year (not just my opinion, ask TIME magazine!), so I was hoping that he would help Jay raise his game. An album filled with songs similar to 'Monster' or 'So Appalled' would have gone down a treat. This, sadly, is not the case.

The album starts off well, with a sombre, haunting beat that is accentuated by newcomer Frank Ocean's soulful hook. Jay starts off with perhaps his strongest lines of the whole album:
'Tears on the mausoleum floor/ Blood stains on the coliseum doors/ Lies on the lips of a priest/ Thanksgiving disguised as a feast...'
This effectively sets the tone for a mature, focused album that sadly does not materialise. The very next track dispels this myth, another Beyonce/Jay collaboration that fails to hit the heights of their solo work (for every '03 Bonnie and Clyde' and 'Crazy in Love' there is a 'Hollywood' or 'Deja Vu'). It is a syrupy, half baked song that seems very out of place next to the preceding track.
The next few tracks are forgettable 'luxury rap' tracks, where Jay and Kanye remind us just how much money they have. The term 'luxury rap' is easily interchangeable with 'the same old shit'.
Even production from RZA can't lift 'New Day', an interesting concept in which Jay and Kanye offer advice to their unborn children, but the execution is dull and lifeless.
Things pick up on 'Welcome to the Jungle'. An uncharacteristically subdued Swizz Beatz produces an incessant, looping beat, while the two rappers intelligently discuss gun crime. On a similar theme is 'Murder to Excellence', where a reggae tinged instrumental provides a backdrop for Kanye's standout rhymes:
'In the past if you picture events like a black tie/ What the last thing you expect to see, black guys/ What's the life expectancy for black guys?/ The system's working effectively, that's why.'
The best track on the album is undoubtedly 'Sweet Baby Jesus'. Frank Ocean is once again called on to provide a sweet, melodious chorus, name checking heroes of black American history, while Jay and Kanye discuss their childhoods over the piano driven beat. Unfortunately, the next five songs cannot match this creative genius, the aforementioned 'H.A.M' proving to be a masterclass in throwaway rap.

Track by Track:

  1. No Church in The Wild (ft. Frank Ocean) 7/10
  2. Lift Off (ft. Beyoncé) 5/10
  3. Niggas in Paris 5/10
  4. Otis (ft. Otis Redding) 7/10
  5. Gotta Have It 5/10
  6. New Day 6/10
  7. Prime Time 5/10
  8. Who Gon Stop Me 7/10
  9. Murder to Excellence 7/10
  10. Welcome to The Jungle 7/10
  11. Sweet Baby Jesus (ft. Frank Ocean) 9/10
  12. Love You So (ft. Mr Hudson) 5/10
  13. Illest Motherfucker Alive 4/10
  14. H*A*M 4/10
  15. That's My Bitch 6/10
  16. The Joy (ft. Curtis Mayfield) 6/10

The Verdict: Ultimately a disappointment, 'Watch the Throne' cannot match up to the sum of its parts. Using a variety of producers dampens Kanye's creative input, while Jay is on underwhelming, Blueprint 3 form.


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