More on “Watch the Throne”
I almost decided to renig on my earlier promise of further Watch the Throne commentary, not because I have nothing let to say but because so much has already been said, and is still being said, about this provocative (I’d almost say controversial) piece of work. I confess that my love of Kanye and Jay-Z is not quite strong enough to have convinced me to stay up until the wee hours of the morning, listening to the album immediately upon its midnight release, but I was rather delighted to awake the next morning and see the entire Twitterverse abuzz, with both the album itself and several individual songs making the cut as “trending topics” for a couple days straight. That, combined with the blog posts and editorials I’ve seen posted on facebook throughout the week, leads me to believe that either Kanye really is peerless at creating hype, or there is something really substantive and challenging about this record that folks just can’t help but talk about.
Of course I think both are ultimately true, and I think both are ultimately worth celebrating. I’m not nearly ready to comment on whether I think this is an all-time hip-hop classic– I’m leaning toward no, but it is, perhaps, pretty close, and is certainly a strong entry in the canon of both artists. Worst case scenario, I think, is that it’s an empty but stylish shell, a masterfully-orchestrated piece of pure rap bombast that has snookered at least half the critical community into thinking it’s got lofty issues on its mind. And if that’s all it is, I’m still very much on board; in the age of iTunes and an ever-fragmented community of pop music listeners, these two MCs have pulled off what appears to be an all-out blockbuster. I’ve been hitting the rewind button on it all week, trying to soak up every wisecrack and double entendre that comes out of these two smooth-talking mouths, and I’ve been doing so in unison with a pretty substantial segment of the online community. That’s not nothing. That’s something to celebrate.
And make no mistake: It’s no accident, and it isn’t purely a matter of the Kanye hype machine, either. To be sure, the album gets some momentum from the very good year Ye had last year, but I think this album is constructed to be a crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the term– not a pandering or watered-down album (like, say, the last proper Hov album), but one that goes for broke and pulls out all the stops to provide us with a good, if sometimes challenging, listening experience. The differences between this and both My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and The Blueprint 3 are important. The former was basically a baroque hip-hop album, and didn’t always come down on the right side of the art/rap divide, at least not for my tastes; for all the talk of this album being prone to excess, there is nothing here even close to the indulgence of “Runaway” or the Chris Rock interlude. Nor are there any songs as shamelessly pop as half the Blueprint 3 material– even the most obvious singles here are kinda out-there and weird, like the space-age ambiance of “Lift Off” and the truly masterful sampling and sonic manipulation on “Otis,” which is a kissing cousin to Ye’s monster hit “Gold Digger” but is at once less hooky and equally compelling. This is a harder-edged and in many respects more basic rap album than either MC has made in a good while (maybe ever, in Ye’s case), but it’s hardly lacking in expert hip-hop craft or in sheer scope; indeed, it is an absolutely huge album, not in terms of length or complexity but in terms of the sonics. If MBDTF was a headphones album, this one is all about wide open spaces and sweeping, IMAX-sized vision. It’s meant to be played loud in order to hear it at full effect.
But with all that said, I do not think this album is merely so much beautiful bluster. I’ve read the criticisms about it– about how it’s just a bunch of bragging, about how it’s so crassly materialistic, etc.– and I understand them. I even sympathize with them. Those who think this kind of machismo is somehow a bad thing, however, should be reminded that there is no greater or purer topic in all of hip-hop than “how dope I am,” and by that standard this album makes a pretty convincing claim for rap supremacy. As for the materialistic bent here, I wouldn’t necessarily contend with the notion that it’s pushed a bit far, but it isn’t empty or hollow. This album is the product of two successful black men who have a lot– who have it all, really– but it’s framed in the context of a time and place where many black folks still have very little, where black people are still very much second-class citizens in many respects. The chip-on-the-shoulder attitude here is earned (“Not bad for some immigrants,” hardly a throw-away line, is one of the most precise and ruthlessly efficient statements here).
More than just asides or afterthoughts, “Made in America” is the necessary context that positions the whole record as part triumph, part statement of mere survival, while “Murder to Excellence” is essentially the Throne mission statement: In a world gone mad with “black on black murder,” what more pragmatic or effective response could there be than to strive for black excellence? The “smell of success” that permeates the album is not pure brag, then, but real empowerment. (The most moving line on the whole thing: “Power to the people/ When you see me, see you.”) It isn’t bragging so much as a celebration of what can be done– and an invitation to do the same. That’s a kind of swagger I can get behind, a kind of swagger that shouldn’t be off-putting, but inspiring. The Rolexes and Benzes and Obama name-drops aren’t a matter of vanity, then, but the very best kind of pride– and Beyonce’s “Lift Off” hook (“How many people you know that can take it this far?) a rallying cry that does, indeed, lift this decadent but celebratory record into something pretty heavy, and pretty remarkable.