Православни икониIn a collaboration that almost seems mythical, two of rap’s biggest moguls –and personalities– have come together to create a grandiose album that is, for better or worse, turning a lot of heads. Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne dropped on August 8th, and, much like the current political climate of the time, it seems the American mainstream public couldn’t be more divided about its response. When two of rap’s most controversial idols join forces, bringing their egos along, it’s safe to say that the product will be either loved or hated with no in-between. Somehow I sensed it would be this way for Watch the Throne, and now that I’ve heard the album, analyzed it, I know where I stand.
I want to start by saying that I’ve loyally been with Jay-Z and Kanye from both of their beginnings. In middle school, I came of age listening to Jay-Z’s “Coming of Age” off Reasonable Doubt, and Kanye’s “Slow Jamz” and “Get ‘Em High” off The College Dropout were my high school and college anthems, respectively. I’ll always carry the bond I was first making with rap because of Jay-Z and Kanye’s footprints on the industry.
In some ways, Watch the Throne represents the best of Jay and Kanye. The beats are catchy and varietal, like the rumbling, glitchy one on “Gotta Have It,” or the piano-influenced melody on “Primetime.” Lyrics-wise, I’ll be the first one to concede the metaphor and analogy power on this album. Both Jay-Z and Kanye’s ability to spit witty verses with ease has kept them at the forefront of an industry that thrives on one-upping the competitor. Watch the Throne isn’t lacking in this area.
But underneath the glossy beats that were likely made with some of the most expensive recording hardware money can buy, behind the slick witticisms, is there something more? Something that provokes us to examine an issue more closely, or that helps us to see one more clearly?
There isn’t. Watch the Throne is theatrical narcissism and flamboyant vanity wrapped in pretty packaging. Grand advertisements of wealth and power flourish on the record, as in the song “That’s My Bitch,” where Kanye declares, “I paid for them titties, get your own, It ain’t safe in the city, watch the throne.” Or like in “Murder to Excellence,” which is seemingly supposed to be a tribute to Danroy Henry — a Pace University wide receiver who was shot and killed by police — but instead boasts lines like, “Black excellence, opulence, decadence, tuxes next to the president, I’m present, I dress in Dries and other boutique stores in Paris.” I wonder if it makes any difference to the Henry family that Jay-Z associates with the President or that he wears high fashion. I doubt it.
Perhaps the most egregious offense on the record presents itself on the track “Otis.” The song pays tribute to the late Otis Redding, or the man better known as the King of Soul. It begins with a sample of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” and then evolves into a rapid beat with Jay-Z rapping about popping bottles, supermodels, and his Rolexes. The video for “Otis” begins with a shot of a Maybach and continues with Jay and Kanye rapping in front of the American flag. How does any of this relate to Otis Redding? you ask. As far as I can see, it doesn’t. Aside from the stolen beat, “Otis” has nothing to do with Otis Redding. Otis Redding is merely the pawn in a track designed to sneakily capture a wider fan base. “Otis” couldn’t be less representative of the life or musical career of its namesake.
Over the years I’ve seen Jay-Z and Kanye rise up from humble beginnings to become the world’s most famous rappers. And in the process I’ve watched both artists buy into the glamour, glitz, and bawdiness that mainstream rap is today. I do realize I risk upsetting many by this honest account of Watch the Throne, but I can’t jump on the bandwagon. The album disappoints on so many levels. Watch the Throne is the direct antithesis of what rap was created for, what it originally grew out of. It’s a slap in the face to the progress that has been made in racial equality. And, most offensively, it’s a flagrant flaunting of wealth in the face people who don’t have it—many of whom ironically comprise a significant portion of Jay-Z and Kanye’s fan base.
If I had to pick one word to describe Watch the Throne, I’d choose irresponsible. It’s the perfect example of two otherwise talented artists who have let fame and power take over their music. It’s the result of two media moguls misusing their eminence and promoting dangerous ideas to society. What we’re left with is a record devoid of meaning, and one that, if not for the hype, would probably be soon forgotten.