Watch the Throne positively reeks of money. Kanye West and Jay-Z spend much of their premiere collaborative full length cataloguing a dizzying array of expensive belongings; Jay buys new Audemars and Rolexes every time their batteries die, and ‘Ye owns multiple Benzes, Margiela jackets, and a gaggle of hot bitches. From the Givenchy-designed cover to the star-studded credits to the parade of haute couture brands gracing the lyric sheet on down to the exotic recording locales and costly samples, Watch the Throne is pure “luxury rap,” as Kanye would say. But like the darker bits of Kanye’s last solo outing, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and pretty much all of 2008’s Auto-Tuned odyssey 808s & Heartbreak, the album’s freewheeling materialism comes off as of a symptom of a deeper malaise rather than an end in itself. Watch the Throne is as much of a celebration of the A-list prominence of its two marquee stars as it is an exegesis of all of that fame’s attendant complications.
Watch the Throne gets much of its pomp and circumstance from the music, which reprises the lush orchestration and shiftless song structures of Kanye’s recent solo work. Many of the tracks here feature a football team’s worth of collaborators. (The Beyonce-featuring, Animal Collective-sounding sorta misfire “Lift Off” is produced by Kanye West, Jeff, Bhasker, Mike Dean, Q-Tip, Pharrell, and Don Jazzy with additional drum programming by LMFAO, Anthony Kilhoffer, and Hit-Boy. Oh, and backing vocals by Seal, Mr. Hudson, etc.) The result is a rangy but state-of-the-art Kanye-ified boom bap. RZA lends his talents to “New Day,” turning in a downbeat soulful instrumental that features an Auto-Tuned Nina Simone. “Who Gon Stop Me” samples Flux Pavilion’s dubstep banger “I Can’t Stop,” whose massive synths get liquefied during the song’s coda as Jay delivers his most searing vocal performance in years. Mike Dean’s titanic, Cassius-sampling “Why I Love You” slowly peels layers off its stuffy largess to reveal the gorgeous string accompaniment underfoot. Kanye and his team are still trafficking in proggy, kitchen-sink experimentation, and Kanye’s transformation into rap’s own ELO is nearly complete.
As big as the beats are, Watch the Throne’s boasts are bigger, and most of the album’s coldest lines are Kanye’s. When he’s not declaring that he “only likes green faces,” he’s informing women that they “will not control the threesome” or auditioning new love interests through bathroom sex. Jay-Z is nearly a decade older, and his hardscrabble hustler beginnings give him a “we ain’t even supposed to be here” kind of disbelief. He feels like he deserves to be “plankin’ on a million” in “Gotta Have It.” “If you escaped what I escaped,” he notes on the Hit-Boy banger “Niggas in Paris,” “you’d be in Paris getting fucked up too.” Jay’s moneyed family man reserve meets its reckless, nouveau riche foil in Kanye, who will stop at nothing to match wares with his one-time idol, as he does on “Niggas in Paris,” when Jay boasts, “I got that hot bitch in my home,” and Kanye butts in with “You know how many hot bitches I own?” These two are a new rap Odd Couple hellbent on spiking each other’s serves. Watch the Throne’s blatant black card money-grubbing is so much a part of the album’s DNA that it would almost grate if there wasn’t a method to the madness.
Even as Watch the Throne finds the duo toasting to one another’s riches, a palpable sour note runs through even the album’s most extravagant moments that suggests things aren’t what they seem at the top. Ye’s still suspicious after his public flogging following Taylor-gate, and his boasts on the Neptunes-produced “Gotta Have It” are tempered with remarks like “Hello, white America/ assassinate my character.” Elsewhere Jay takes time out of “That’s My Bitch” to question the dearth of black female superstars in Hollywood. (“I mean Marilyn Monroe, she’s quite nice/ But why all the pretty icons always all white?”) There’s a race conscious nihilism about the proceedings that paints a picture of Forbes cover black entrepreneurialism as a lonely way to be. Late in the album, on “Murder to Excellence,” Jay notes, “Only spot a few blacks the higher I go,” and Kanye snarls, “If you picture events like a black tie/ What’s the last thing you expect to see? Black guys.”
Watch the Throne is the dark side of the American dream. It’s Act II. It’s the story of two individuals whose wildest dreams have become their daily realities. When they get there, they find out that the otherness they’d perceived as youth, being men of color, would still be there. They could count their peers on one hand. Scores of people they never met seem to love and hate them in equal measure. People they met on the way up continually come out of the woodwork trying to attack them. Trust is obsolete. It has taken a back seat to money. What’s left to do? Watch the throne. Keep the circle smaller, the castle bigger, the walls taller. Is it really good to be king?
In addition to working on his fifth full-length album, fulfilling a promise to release new music every week from late August until Christmas, and maintaining a feverishly followed new Twitter account, Kanye West has found time in 2010 to prepare Watch The Throne, a five-song collaborative album with none other than Jay-Z. The first track released from the project, "Monster," finds 'Ye teaming up with reliable cohorts including Hov, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, and in a bit of a curveball, Bon Iver mastermind Justin Vernon. It's the combination of two of hip-hop's largest and polarizing figures, as well as the latest chapter in an artistic partnership that yielded the epic "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" and "Power" remixes, not to mention Jay-Z's gigantic "Run This Town."