Watch the Throne

Watch the Throne

Watch the Throne is the first album where JAY-Z actually sounds relaxed. Not relaxed in that tight, who-you-callin’-funny kind of way, but relaxed like you’re on top of a mountain looking down into the valley: nowhere to go, because you’re already there. He’d been collaborating with Kanye West for more than 10 years, developing a chemistry that borders on fraternal—you sense Jay didn’t just stake his business on him, but his reputation. Where Jay is the head (detached, analytical), West is the messy, impulsive heart. Not only do they represent two different sides of the rap coin (Jay the projects-born hustler, West the middle-class auteur; Jay old-school, Kanye new), they draw out the distant regions of each other’s personalities: West’s confidence to be authoritative about the world beyond himself, Jay’s comfort to let down his guard and be loose. The result is music that is personal (Jay’s verse on “Welcome to the Jungle”), political (Kanye on “Murder to Excellence”), intoxicated by wealth and status but primitive in its aggression (“N****s in Paris”). As a musical guide, West has always been a perfect fit for Jay: The soul samples make him identifiable to conservatives pushing against the futuristic side of rap (“Otis”), but he doesn’t care enough about orthodoxy to let it hold him back—he doesn’t just sample Nina Simone, he runs her through Auto-Tune (”New Day”). Measure it against either one’s career arc and it’s a classic: Kanye gets to celebrate being hailed a genius after My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and JAY-Z gets to take a break from polishing his own monument long enough to remember how he built it. With the rise of Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and Drake, Watch the Throne gets to rest in the knowledge of seeing the pendulum of rap swing back toward pure lyricism without sacrificing musical omnivorousness that helped it cross over 10 years earlier—a reaping not just for JAY-Z and West, but for their chosen art. Don’t let their boorishness fool you into thinking they don’t know what’s going on; the smartest guy at the board meeting is always the one in jeans. “Fuck that bitch; she don’t wanna dance,” West raps on “N****s in Paris.” “Excuse my French, but I'm in France.”

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