Twin megastars deliver regal hip hop with pop fizz.
Marcus J. Moore 2011-08-09
At this point in their respective careers, Kanye West and Jay-Z don’t have anything else to prove. They’re already iconic megastars of the highest order, with an endless array of classics that rekindle an interest in Annie and Ray Charles, blurring the lines between rap’s underground affinities and pop music’s robust stadium sound. They are full-fledged stunt men, focused more on preserving their own monetary interests than advancing the hip hop culture. Therefore, one shouldn’t expect the second coming of Run-DMC on Watch the Throne, even if Otis Redding’s and Curtis Mayfield’s disembodied voices inject dashes of soul into the otherwise glossy project. These rappers have lots of money, lavish tastes and the world at their collective feet. They want you to rejoice and be glad in it.
Still, that doesn’t hide the fact that Watch the Throne sounds like a conflicted tug-of-war between the two, with Kanye lyrically dominating the album’s first half, and Jay struggling to clean up the remains. There’s an obvious brotherly connection, and Kanye rhymes with the zeal of a younger sibling looking to topple his older relative once and for all. "I just want him to have an easy life, not like Yeezy life," Kanye raps on New Day, a metaphorical song about imagined fatherhood; "Just want him to be someone people like." At times, Watch the Throne is triumphant and celebratory: No Church in the Wild is a moody gospel stomp with primal screams and an insistent guitar riff, while Lift Off finds Kanye trying to match Beyoncé’s soulful moans with Auto-Tuned verses of prosperity.
Elsewhere, the duo tackles serious topics with mixed results. The tribal Murder to Excellence is an impressive glimpse into the urban homicide epidemic, while Made in America fails to resonate because of a contrived chorus that pays homage to West's Sweet Baby Jesus, among others. In the end, Watch the Throne is a very noble attempt at cohesion, but its inconsistency ultimately stalls the project, resulting in an uneven recording that buckles under the weight of its own pressure. The world is still watching, however, so Kanye and Jay can’t lose.