Watch the Throne
8.2.2011

Album Preview: Jay-Z x Kanye West – ‘Watch the Throne’

Planetariums are more used to hosting classic rock laser light shows than the most anticipated hip-hop album of the year, but last night, hundreds of people stormed the Museum of Natural History to hear Watch the Throne, the long-awaited collaborative album from Jay-Z and Kanye West. With Kanye, Jay, Beyoncé, Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes, and Kelly Rowland among the numerous musicians in attendance, it took three listening sessions in New York’s massive Hayden Planetarium for the entire crowd to hear the 12-track, hour-long album.

With no guest rappers or skits and minimal orchestral flourishes, Watch the Throne scrapped the original idea of elaborate productions, favoring stripped-down tracks highlighting the two MC’s vocal and lyrical strengths. While the album avoids neat sonic pigeonholing thanks to a wide range of outside producers assisting West and Jay-Z, overall, Throne contains some of the hardest material either rapper has recorded. Jay-Z rhymes in double time on multiple tracks, while Kanye goes light on the punchlines favored in the past for more introspective and autobiographical lyrics.

Rap-Up.com previews Watch the Throne ahead of the album’s August 8 release.

1. “No Church in the Wild” featuring Frank Ocean
Produced by 88-Keys and Kanye West

Longtime West cohort 88-Keys last teamed up with the producer on 2008’s “Stay Up! (Viagra).” But where that track was a smooth, jazzy beat made for a lazy Sunday afternoon, the opening salvo from Watch the Throne is an anthemic, bass-heavy bazooka shot underscoring the duo’s literal and metaphorical relationship with spirituality and religion. With lines like “Your love is my scripture” and “What’s God to a non-believer?,” Kanye and Jay start the album on an pensive note, a recurring theme on Throne. With Frank Ocean, a singer virtually unknown a year ago, providing the hook, the Odd Future crooner’s ascendency as one of the premier R&B vocalists in music is all but assured.

2. “Lift Off” featuring Beyoncé
Produced by Kanye West, Jeff Bhasker, and Mike Dean

Jeff Bhasker, who co-produced tracks on West’s 808s and Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and longtime West collaborator Mike Dean helped produce this self-empowerment showcase for Beyoncé. Horn blasts and martial drums anchor the track that ditches the rapping for Beyoncé’s voice. “We gonna take it to the moon/ Take it to the stars,” sings B, with the planetarium’s cosmic visuals providing the perfect accompaniment. It’s a vocal triumph for the singer akin to a stretched-out intro, yet the track feels unfinished and lacking in the context of the rest of the album.

3. “Ni**as in Paris”
Produced by Hit-Boy and Kanye West

The first club song on the album, “Paris” stands out for its punishing drums, ominous snyths, and Jay-Z’s double-time raps. This is the Jay-Z that “Big Pimpin'” fans missed when the rapper started hanging out with Chris Martin and dropping references to his stockbrokers and St. Tropez. West reverts back to his old style of enunciating the last word of each line for emphasis, proving that he can still come hard on a track.

4. “Otis” featuring Otis Redding
Produced by Kanye West

After the tepid response from aborted lead single “H•A•M,” now relegated to a deluxe edition bonus track on Throne, the duo released this Otis Redding-sampling track last week to equal parts excitement and bemusement. It’s a curious track for a single, with no recognizable horn blasts or fun, sing-along hooks. But the track’s minimalism forces Kanye and Jay to engage in inspiring lyrical braggadocio that’s short on substance but heavy on swagger. Still, like “Lift Off,” “Otis” feels like a rough draft; a song with a solid backbone that overemphasizes its source material and feels incomplete.

5. “Gotta Have It”
Produced by The Neptunes

Here’s your new “Brooklyn’s Finest.” Over a Neptunes co-production, the two rappers go back and forth every four bars, each trying to one-up the other. Jay-Z recently told Hot 97 DJ Angie Martinez that the pair push each other to be better rappers and this is Throne‘s best example. Musically, it’s a singular track anchored by a repeated European female vocal sample that’s a standout on the album.

6. “New Day”
Produced by The RZA, Kanye West, and Mike Dean

On this track aimed at the rappers’ unborn sons, Jay-Z has said that the honesty of Kanye’s verse almost made him avoid getting on the song. Arguably West’s best verse on Throne, the rapper balances humor, insight, and candor when discussing how his past mistakes will make him a better father. “I want him to have an easy life/ And not have a Yeezy life,” West rhymes over RZA’s cosmic synths and jazzy horns, adding that he’ll turn his son Republican “because he loves white people” and teaching him to avoid strip clubs. Jay-Z, echoing lines from 2006’s “Beach Chair,” admits that “sins of the father made your life harder,” and delves into highly personal, autobiographical lyrics about his pre-rap life.

7. “That’s My Bitch”
Produced by Q-Tip and Kanye West

This is the song aspiring producers will dissect like the Zapruder film to unravel the track’s disparate sounds. “Bitch” sounds like a classic Bomb Squad production, with intricate, heavy drums laying the foundation for West and co-producer Q-Tip’s complex layering.

8. “Welcome to the Jungle”
Produced by Swizz Beatz

Despite the title, there’s no Guns N’ Roses sample here, though Jay-Z does call himself “the black Axl Rose.” With what sounds like a repeating guitar riff similar to “It’s All About the Benjamins,” this is straight bragging from Jigga, who rhymes, “I look in the mirror/ My only opponent.”

9. “Who’s Gon Stop Me”
Produced by Sham “Sak Pase” Joseph and Kanye West

Expect to see remixes of this one pop up overnight, as soaring synths, deep bass, and a looped vocal of “I Can’t Stop” turn the track into the most experimental dance song either rapper has attempted. This is electronic music more in line with U.K. dubstep producers SBTRKT and James Blake than any traditional hip-hop producers, with a slowed-down tempo and arpeggiated synths creating a woozy backdrop for the duo’s brash vocal dares. When West repeats the title toward the end, challenging all comers, it’s the most confident he’s sounded in years.

10. “Murder to Excellence”
Produced by Swizz Beatz and S1

Swizz Beatz and “POWER” co-producer S1 are responsible for Throne‘s lushest track, which sees the rappers transitioning from verses on black-on-black crime to a celebration of black culture. After a nod to Jay-Z’s “Lucifer” (“I’m from the murder capital where we murder for capital”), West details Chicago’s crime rate, comparing the annual U.S. casualties in Iraq to his own city’s murder rate. It’s a controversial lyric that West will probably be asked about more than once. As the lyrics turn from sobering to celebratory, the somber beat morphs into one of the catchiest head-nodders on Throne.

11. “Made in America” featuring Frank Ocean
Produced by Sham “Sak Pase” Joseph

Another autobiographical track similar to West’s “Big Brother,” “Made in America” sees Kanye and Jay-Z discussing their respective pasts, with West focusing on the past decade and Jay rhyming about his upbringing. With Frank Ocean singing the evocative hook celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X that says, in part, “Sweet baby Jesus/ We made it into America,” West describes meeting Jay-Z, buying his mom a Hummer, and that infamous “South Park” episode. (“‘South Park’ had them all laughin’/ Now all my boys are designers swaggin’.”) Jay-Z “pledge[s] allegiance to all the scramblers” and rhymes about the necessity of hustling over a simple, one-chord piano loop.

12. “Why I Love You” featuring Mr Hudson
Produced by Mike Dean and Kanye West

Like anything U.K. singer Mr Hudson has done with the rappers (“Young Forever,” “Paranoid”), this will be the most polarizing track on the album. On paper, an ’80s power ballad with a hook of “Ooh, I love you so/ But why I love you/ I’ll never know” sounds intolerable; but pop synths that sound like Europe’s “The Final Countdown” mixed with Jay-Z’s double-time rhyming somehow works. Maybe because it was the last track, but this was the one you could hear people singing during the rush to the exits.

Bonus: We’d be remiss not to mention the brief but impactful interludes inserted throughout Watch the Throne. Reminiscent of classic ’90s hip-hop albums like Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s Mecca and the Soul Brother, the interludes could have functioned as proper album beats, with one snippet sounding like a hip-hop version of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android.” Given the album’s sonic diversity, they function as effective buffers between the most divergent tracks.

–Jason Newman