This morning at 12:01 AM, the masses were able to cop the long awaited collaboration Watch the Throne from Jay-Z and Kanye West. Worth it? That’s going to depend on which one of the internet bloggerati breaking their backs to get some copy out on it that you believe. Down here in Guatemala without proper internet until my DC return on 9/1, I walked over and stole some bandwidth outside a coffee shop around midnight my time to see if the Twitter trending was worth it. An album like this is a crap shoot, especially in the wake of the (still not forgotten) disaster that was Best of Both Worlds. And Kanye is crushing right now, why partner with Jay-Z who, while still tops in hip-hop, hasn’t put out a masterpiece recently? Kanye continuously spits them out like sunflower seeds. Not saying he needs to be the Joffrey to Jay’s Eddard Stark at this point– but maybe he could. Even before my coffee I was hashing out my feelings for this record with Tom McLeod of You Heard That New, a vicious but pragmatic defender of ‘Hova. We agreed that there’s no way it’s gonna live up to the hype BUT it is an enjoyable record that will best 80% of popular hip-hop out there right now. I’m looking at you Gucci Mane and Waka. You can catch prolific DC writer and BYT contributor Marcus Dowling’s thoughts here. And ?uestlove’s thoughtful commentary here. As for me, some initial thoughts on the first 7 tracks below.
1) No Church in the Wild – prod. Kanye West, Mike Dean, 88 Keys and featuring The Dream and Frank Ocean
Not a strong opener. While the flip of Phil Manzanera’s K Scope opening riff is interesting, the lyrical content is not – rehashed church and Jesus references. Go listen to Jesus Walks for that fix, and skip this track. Odd Future associate Frank Ocean sounds utterly bored here although he’s not given much to work with. “What’s a God to a non-believer, who don’t believe in” Wait for it, wait for it… “anything?” Really? Come a little stronger with the chorus please, especially on the opening track.
2) Lift Off – prod. Kanye West, Q Tip, Pharrell and featuring Beyonce
OK… This song is the musical embodiment of Tracy Morgan’s “Astronaut Jones” sketches on SNL. And I mean that in the worst way. “We gon’ take it to the moon, take it to the stars, how many people you know can take it this far? I’m supercharged, ‘bout to take this thing to mars.” What the fuck? This corny anthem should be mixtape fodder or at least a late track on a Beyonce record. Fast-forward to 50 seconds left as the beat rides out and the horns and piano take precedence. Then never listen to it again.
3) Niggas in Paris – prod. Hit-Boy, Kanye West, and Mike Dean
Rewinded this one and it grew on me. Hit-Boy’s sneakily ominous track gives Jay room to spit typical braggadocio and affluence but with the fire you’d expect from 20 years of experience. I’m a sucker for ballin’ rhymes too: “Ya’ll don’t know that don’t sh*t phase me / The Nets could go 0-82 and I look at you like this sh*t gravy / This sh*t weird / We ain’t even spose to be here / Since we here / It’s only right that we be fair / Psycho, I’m liable to be go Michael, / Take your pick / Jackson, Tyson, Jordan, Game 6.” He adopts Biggie’s cadence from Victory off of No Way Out and while I’ll agree that it’s an homage, not thievery, younger hip hop fans aren’t going to get it. Which is a shame. Kanye is well within his amplified absurdity here and reigns topically on the Royal Wedding: “Prince William ain’t do it right if you ask me, / Cause if I was him I would have married Kate & Ashley.” He also says “That shit cray” about 30 times, somewhat humorous as it’s the first time I’ve heard it come out of a mouth that didn’t belong to an overly excited white chick. Right about 2:43, Hit-Boy drops out the twinkling keyboards, leaves the massive drums and throws in some beautiful piano and choral accompaniment for what SHOULD have been the album opener. “You are now watching he throne, don’t let me enter my zone, I’m definitely in my zone.” Yea, ‘Ye, we’ve been waiting 3 songs for it. If this is hitting the stride, I’m feeling it.
4) Gotta Have It – prod. Neptunes and co-prod. Kanye West (and featuring the 2nd sampling of James Brown’s “Don’t Tell A Lie About Me and I Won’t Tell the Truth About You.”
Easily my favorite of the first 4 tracks. Could do without Kanye’s “Turn my headphones up” intro but I’ll assume it’s a T.I.C. ode to Dave Chappelle’s sketch and keep it moving. This song sees ‘Ye and Jay trading lyrical lava in the most comfortable exchange on the record so far. Jay takes it back to Reasonable Doubt hunger and u-turns to 2011 with a planking reference. Definitely the first in hip hop (by someone who matters.) “(KW) Racks on racks on racks / Maybachs on bachs on bachs on bachs on bachs (JZ) Who in that? (KW) Oh sh*t, it’s just blacks on blacks on blacks / Hundred stack (JZ) How you get it? (KW) Ni**a layin’ raps on tracks (JZ) I wish I could give you this feelin’ / I’m planking on a million.” Pretty sparse for a Neptunes track as Chad and Pharrell let Jay and ‘ye ride over synths, piano and a woman cooing in the background. This one goes on repeat, STAMP.
5) Otis – Prod. Kanye West
This song’s been out for a few weeks so I’ll just co-sign that the “Try A Little Tenderness” sample is bananas. Funny that the sentiments of Redding are pretty much the opposite of this middle finger to everyone who’s not Jay-Z and Kanye West. Thing is, even if they WERE talking about you, the track goes too hard for you to care. Unless you’re Chuck D, who uses this song as an opportunity to proselytize.
6) New Day – Prod. Kanye West and The RZA
If Otis is the holy grail of excess, New Day sees the thoughtful, sensitive Yeezy we see about 70% the time and the Jay-Z of Song Cry. An ode to unborn sons, Rza and ‘Ye provide a lush background of pianos, guitars and horns with an utterly monstrous Nina Simone “Feeling Good” sample. This is the kicker adding some real emotional muscle to the introspective rhyming. Distorted and bent beyond belief into future R & B from year 3008, the sample rides constantly in the background. I fuck with this instrumental, and I imagine we’ll have some other takes via the mixtape circuit reeeaaaal soon. To the song, ‘Ye takes on the “yeezy” life versus the “easy life” while falling on his sword for a half-decade of perceived missteps. Not surprising is the George Bush/White People gaffe but what hits the hardest is a direct reference to his mother’s death: “And I’ll never let his mom move to L.A. / Knowin’ she couldn’t take the pressure now we all pray.” This is a lot heavier than pissing off Taylor Swift fans. Jay goes a little more generic with topics of paparazzi and a mention of deadbeat dad’s. Which begs the question: do we already know too much about Jay-Z to care or be affected? Either way, as my man Tom put it, he’s still top 5 in the game. This either says a lot about Jay-Z or a lot about the rap game.
7) That’s My Bitch – Prod. Kanye West and Q-Tip (and featuring recent West muse, Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver. And another James Brown sample, same featured prominently in Public Enemy’s brilliant “Can’t Truss It”)
Over a funky Incredible Bongo Band sample with some additional synths, and even a Bon Iver mini-hook (that he didn’t know about,) both stars show-out with rapid fire flows about their women. Degrading or not, this will be a party banger and deservedly so. Kanye is on the same tip as his “Throw Some D’s” remix which is to say, reveling in stupidity and the objectification of women. If you’re listening to this record, you probably don’t take West too seriously and won’t be offended. e’s oft throwing darts back at himself regarding his loveless social contracts with models and groupies. You are forgive if you’re offended by yet another open love letter from Jay-Z to Beyonce at the end of his verse. WE GET IT. You even let her soil the album on “Lift Off.” Hova throws in some interesting thoughts on race and female icons via “I mean Marilyn Monroe, she’s quite nice / But why all the pretty icons always all-white? / Put some colored girls in the MOMA / Half these broads ain’t got nothing on Wylona / Don’t make me bring Thelma in it / Bring Halle, Bring Penelope and Selma in it /” but it doesn’t salvage the verse. Does compare Beyonce to a dog though, sure she’s loving that.
PART 2 tomorrow