Jay-Z and Kanye West's 'Watch the Throne': Track-by-Track
Watch the Throne isn’t a request, it’s an order. The edict of Jay-Z and Kanye West, two of the world’s most popular rappers and free spenders, connoisseurs of rhymes, beats, boutique menswear and Basquiats, when they announced the collaboration nearly a year ago, it may have been the biggest ad hoc supergroup since the Traveling Wilburys.
Assuming the pseudonym, “The Throne,” the duo took nearly a year to deliver the finished product: 12 official songs, four bonus tracks, and enough fine art references to get either man a job as curator at New York’s MOMA. The liner notes cite a litany of music’s bold-faced names -- Beyonce, Swizz Beatz, Q-Tip, RZA, Odd Future crooner Frank Ocean, The Neptunes -- along with the ghosts of Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield. Apparently, Isaac Hayes could not be summoned by séance.
Raising the ire of independent music retailers for signing an exclusive distribution deal with iTunes and Best Buy, Watch the Throne (released August 8) is maximalism as mantra: two race-conscious rappers detailing the conquests and costs of living on Olympus where, at times, it seems the oxygen is a little thin. Read on for a track-by-track breakdown of the braggadocio.
“No Church in the Wild” (feat. Frank Ocean)
Setting the tone, the velvet-voiced Frank Ocean moans about “what’s a king to a god.” Presumably, Kanye first pondered this during a trip to the Pyramids to study Khufu’s headdress for a forthcoming fashion line. Jay-Z goes full DaVinci Code, invoking “blood on mausoleum floors” and “blood on the Colisseum door.” There is a Phil Manzanera prog-rock sample and Socrates, Plato, and Jesus references. Plus, auto-tune on the hook—because Jay forgot that he had already killed it.
“Lift Off” (feat. Beyonce)
The album’s most transparent bid for radio play, “Lift Off” finds Beyonce in Melisma mode, singing about having “so many scars” and “taking this whole thing to the stars.” It features an old NASA movie sample and Kanye showing off his tattoos and inflexible singing voice. Jay-Z is mad about something. Probably because this isn’t as Glee-ready as “Empire State of Mind.”
“Niggas in Paris”
Consider this enlightened monarch rap with year 3000 synthesizers and caveman drums a club banger -- for Parisian discotheques. Swapping boasts, Jay-Z laughs about a meager sum ($50,000), while Kanye hypothesizes: if a girl wants to marry him at the mall, she should have sex with him in the mall bathroom. Although early Kevin Smith would seem to be the most appropriate sample choice, Kanye and Jay instead opt for a snippet from the Will Ferrell ice skating romp, Blades of Glory.
“Otis” (feat. Otis Redding)
Only Jay-Z and Kanye would have the hubris and budget to sample Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” and credit the late great soul legend as a featured guest. Although Redding’s piercing hell-struck wails and heaves offer a spiritual underpinning, it’s made agnostic by Jay and Kanye’s Robb Report raps. Jay smokes Cubanos in Havana with Fidel Castro, and claims to have invented swag. Kanye has private jets and Maybachs. It’s less sitting on docks, more being docked on yachts.
“Gotta Have It”
The first of several attempts to break down racial inequities and bias, Kanye lambastes “white America trying to assassinate his character.” By the 90-second mark, he forgets about that and starts talking about his racks and Maybachs. Jay-Z planks on a million. The Neptunes’ beat is a spooky ghost wail full of chattering synths. The brags seem less confident bluster, more a reflection of the lack of new stories that either veteran artist has to offer.
Kanye reportedly requested that co-producer RZA send him something as raw as Wu Tang. And so RZA obliged, serving up spooky 36 Chambers future soul that finds West and Jay-Z exploring the difficulties of raising children, in light of the fame and pressures that will accompany them out the womb. Kanye half-jokes that he will make his son vote Republican to show how much he loves white people. This is a bit hyperbolic. No one who has seen his love of Tom Ford would dare question Kanye’s affinities for white people and white Gucci suits.
“That’s My Bitch”
Lacing the track with a familiar Incredible Bongo band break beat, “That’s My Bitch” has a modernized but retro boom bap feel -- with uh, Bon Iver. You can infer the subject matter from the title, but Jay-Z opts to put a particularly fine art spin to it, namedropping Picasso and the Mona Lisa. He also rhymes “Larry Gagosian” with “museum” (pronounced, “mo-seum”). If you think that sounds cool, you will inevitably enjoy this record.
“Welcome to the Jungle”
Over an insistent Swizz Beatz keyboard line that resembles a more garish update of his Ruff Ryders aesthetic, Kanye references an Outkast song in the opening lines and Jay-Z calls himself the Black Axl Rose. He later calls himself a tortured soul who lives in disguise. This would explain those Steve Urkel glasses he’s been rocking the last few years.
“Who Gon’ Stop Me”
Over a dubstep-like beat, Kanye starts comparing “millions of our people lost” to the “Holocaust.” It’s unclear what Kanye’s referring to by “our people.” Judging by the lyrical content of the previous songs, it’s possible that he’s alluding to Playboy bunnies who got lost at his estate during a heated game of nude hide n’ go seek. Jay-Z admits that he still likes Picasso, but now he also likes Rothko and Rilke. Somewhere the ghost of Jackson Pollack is very disappointed.
“Murder to Excellence”
A Quincy Jones sample, Swizz and S1 beats, and the most focused writing on the record makes “Murder to Excellence” a clear stand-out. Split into two parts, “Murder” explores black-on-black murder, while “Excellence” is a celebration of the new black elite. Jay-Z expresses his alienation at the shortage of black faces in the top tier of society. Thankfully, he has Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow to keep him company in the interim. If you’re looking for illuminati evidence, this is where you would start.
“Made in America” (feat. Frank Ocean)
With a nod to the HBO show How to Make It in America is a scattershot exploration of the art of the hustle and how to profit against all odds. Frank Ocean sings about sweet baby Jesus and various civil rights icons. Ostensibly, Malcolm X wore Fendi.
“Why I Love You” (feat. Mr Hudson)
Sampling French house duo Cassius, Jay-Z tells his story using imagery of Rome burning, castle walls rising, and inevitably referring to the friends and collaborators he’s lost over the last few decades. And then he quotes Waka Flocka’s “Bustin At Em.” Mr. Hudson swoons in the background, presumably with a gladiola.
“Illest Motherf**ker Alive”
Kanye makes puns about wearing fur and sleeping with centerfolds as a serious teardrop celestial choice beat unfolds behind him. It is unclear whether Manolo Blahnik had to pay money for product placement. Jay-Z says that Basquiats and Warhols are his muses. It is also not clear whether Jeffrey Deitch ghostwrote Jay’s verse.
The project’s underwhelming first leak finds Jay and Kanye riding out Lex Luger’s Valkyrie crunk. Apparently, they sell really cool Viking helmets at Barney’s.
The forever underrated producer No I.D. continues his sterling second act with a gorgeous twinkling burner. Perhaps the best song on the record, “Primetime” is a bonus track because it doesn’t fit into the grandiose ambition of the album. It just tries to be good.
“The Joy” (feat. Curtis Mayfield)
Originally leaked during Kanye’s “G.O.O.D. Fridays” series, Pete Rock and West redeem a pitch-perfect Curtis Mayfield sample, turning into a slow cruising head nodder.