Review: Jay-Z & Kanye West Earn Their Egos With 'Watch the Throne'

Mon Aug 8, 2011 11:49am EDT

If nothing else, the contest for Year’s Most Quotable Album has just been decided.

Bartlett might have to publish a separate edition just to deal with the hundreds of memorable rhymes Jay-Z and Kanye West come up with as their legendary egos battle itout on “Watch the Throne,” the rappers’ long-awaited collaborative album.

Beyoncé shows up to sing the chorus of “Lift Off,” the most commercial (and least interesting) track, but that hook is less memorable than some of the lyrical references Jay-Z makes to his superstar wife.

A recurring theme is how Jay-Z deserves all his riches to assuage the pain he experienced in his rough youth -- and in the bonus track “H-A-M,” he includes his spouse among the rewards: “Try to walk around in these shoes / See the s--- I saw growing up / And maybe you can take a peek at Bey’s boobs.”

The missus is also cited – as is protégé Rihanna -- in the preceding number, “Illest Motherf----- Alive,” which has Jay-Z reaching previously unaccessed levels of anti-self-effacement: “Elvis has left the building, now I’m on the Beatles’ ass / [N-word] hear ‘Watch the Throne,’ yeah, it’s like the Beatles back / Bey Bey my Yoko Ono, Rih Rih complete the family / Imagine how that’s gon look front row at the Grammys.”

West’s head isn’t any less large than his partner’s, so the main difference in attitude between the determinedly entitled stars is in how they relate to women.

“I got that hot [B-word] in my home,” raps Jay. “You know how many hot [B-words] I own?” counters Kanye, less monogamously inclined than ever. Later, escorting a woman he describes as “Mary Magdalene from a pole dance” around a club, he adds, “That second girl with us, that’s our wife.” Leave it to West to advance the fight for marriage equality, as long as it involves threesomes.

With heads these big in the room, it almost seems superfluous for an outsider to jump in with anything positive to say. But “Watch the Throne” is actually as accomplished and outrageously entertaining as it is un-progressive in matters of gender roles and humility. These two deserve about half the glory they heap upon themselves, which is saying a lot.

Superstar collaborations almost inevitably disappoint. (Remember Jay-Z’s album-length hookup with R. Kelly? Of course you don’t.) So “Watch the Throne” is likely to be held up for years as a model of how to do it right. Either rapper’s boasts can grow wearisome over the course of an uninterrupted solo project, but the variety provided by their alternating verses works wonders in keeping us almost as fascinated by them as they are by their mirrors.

And it feels like it took a village to raise this “Throne,” not just the two titans. There’s nary a dull moment on an album that features not just West’s ongoing sense of sonic brilliance but production contributions from Swizz Beats, Q-Tip, and RZA, among others; vocal cameos by Kid Cudi, Seal, and an opera singer or two; and cleverly utilized samples by everyone from Nina Simone to Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera.

As his themes go, West seems to have regressed since the introspections of his last two albums, the highly personal “808s and Heartbreak” and “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” not to mention the self-realization themes of his one-man “Glow in the Dark” show. He’s like a character in a sitcom who learns some valuable lesson at the end of every episode and then shows up at the beginning of the next as morally undeveloped as he ever was.

It makes for a lot of mixed messages, as Ye and Hova alternate between inspiring themes of black self-empowerment and the chilly audacity of sheer privilege. But couplet for couplet, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more potent pair of poets (some of the cornier lines previously excerpted possibly withstanding).

“Coke on her black skin make a stripe like a zebra / I call that jungle fever,” West raps in the ominous, opening “No Church in the Wild,” leading into a sensual godlessness that’s more descriptive than celebratory. He allows himself a few moments of honest self-doubt: “This beat deserves Hennessy, a bad [B-word]/ And a bag of weed, the holy trinity / In the mirror, where I see my only enemy / Your life’s cursed? Well, mine’s an obscenity.”

Although he's less prone to fits of true self-examination, Jay-Z has several moving moments as he describes being affected by the untimely deaths he experienced in his family as a poverty-stricken pre-mogul.

The album’s masterful centerpiece, “Murder to Excellence,” is actually two terrific conjoined songs, the first a lament about black-on-black crime and the second a celebration of the strides African-Americans are making into the world of black-tie events. Specifically, one or two African-American hip-hop giants in particular.

“Only spot a few blacks the higher I go,” says gazillionaire Jay-Z. “What’s up to Will / Shout-out to O / That ain’t enough / We gon need a million more.” Maybe they’re willing to expand their throne room for some fellow royals, after all.