Given that Jay-Z and Kanye West are two of the most popular and successful hip-hop artists of the moment, it doesn’t seem like a bad idea for them to work together. Watch The Throne has all the ingredients you’d think would make a successful rap record in 2011: a star-studded lineup, good production with interesting samples, meta-references, braggadocio, and a little auto tune. The album starts off strong with catchy beats that have interesting changes, but the momentum slumps midway and never fully recovers when the songs become overly repetitive in structure.
United in materialism, hubris, and social status, Jay and Ye contrast each other in their juxtaposition by representing several types of modern Black American masculinity. The former is a newly married businessman-turned-hustler enjoying a career that continues to endure after more than twenty years, and the latter is a jaded, outspoken bachelor with a middle class background and a history of heartbreak. Kanye’s pain is palpable on “New Day,” when he highlights his life’s regrets by listing lessons he plans to teach his future son over a simple but pleasant piano-driven mid-tempo beat with a Nina Simone sample. The line “I’ll never let him ever hit a strip club / I learned the hard way, that ain’t the place to get love” is an obvious reference to Amber Rose, his most recent failure at love. Jay-Z is equally vulnerable as he promises “Junior” that he’ll never abandon him the way his own father did him.
Later, Jay expresses genuine but questionable appreciation for Beyonce on “That’s My Bitch.” The title glares boldly and grates at the more politically correct listeners, daring them to wonder how Jigga’s wife and soon-to-be mother Beyonce feels about being called his “bitch” (for answers to this question, look no further than Beyonce’s song “Ego” from I Am… Sasha Fierce). Despite this shortcoming, props are still due to Jay for pointing out that mainstream America’s definition of classic beauty should be broadened to include women of color such as his wife, who makes a guest appearance on the track “Lift Off,” a composition that evokes triumph and annoys the ear as much as one would expect considering that it features three of pop’s most obnoxiously over-represented stars.
Other guest spots include Frank Ocean on “No Church In The Wild” and “Made In America,” an excessively synth-heavy and thus corny sounding attempt to pay homage to revolutionary Black American leaders and “sweet baby Jesus” while looking back at their own careers. Kid Cudi, Charlie Wilson, and Mr. Hudson each make vocal contributions as the production that West provides is assisted by hit makers including The Neptunes, Q-Tip, the RZA, 88 Keys, Om’Mas Keith, and, ahem, Swizz Beatz. Despite that lineup, it’s important to know that Kanye had a hand in the production of each song, which may have been to the album’s detriment.
Jay-Z rides the electro-industrial beat to “Who Gon Stop Me” expertly, threatening to pick things up after the album’s energy wanes, but most of the remaining songs just sound too similar to maintain that velocity. The result is an unmemorable collection of songs that rely too heavily on loops and samples. Watch The Throne would have probably made a deeper creative impact if Jay and Ye had adhered to their original plan for it to be a 5-track EP. However, this album neither increases nor diminishes the value of either artist’s creative output, and is going to sell regardless.