Ladeez and gentlemen, please be upstanding for the world heavyweight hip hop champions of the world in their first major title bout! In the red corner we have the undisputed champion of the world, Jay-Z aka Mr Beyonce, and in the redder corner we have pretender to the throne, college dropout, and the man who raised Jesus from the dead, Kanye West!!
Synchronise Rolexes . . . seconds (and bottles of Cristel) out!
This may seem like the perfect billing for the face-off between hip hop’s true overlords but if rap was born out of street battles where verbal flow and attitude triumphed, there’s precious little sign of it here. When these guys step in the arena they're more likely to hug rather than hit each other. Watch The Throne is no battle Royale but a fascinating study in contrasts. Jay-Z is the music mogul with Beyonce on his arm and obscene wealth at his command and West is hip hop’s the lil’ boy lost with only his Twitter account for comfort.
But it’s West who sounds like he’s in the driving seat here. The hip hop noir and grandiose production of his last album, the flawed masterpiece, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is married to Jay-Z’s lean and effortless flow but it’s West’s ever-expanding universe of hip hop surrealism that gives Watch The Throne its eerie power.
We start with the conventional No Church in The Wild featuring superb vocals by Frank Ocean of OFWGKTA against the thump of a double bass and Beyonce is in fine voice amid the dense and frenetic beats of Lift Off. Watch The Throne’s first signs of wild ambition come with Otis and New Day two songs which, respectively sample Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness and Nina Simone’s Feeling Good. A brave move perhaps but Jay-Z and West have never shied away from living up to rap’s legend of self aggrandisement and placing themselves among the greats. On Otis, the sound of one of soul’s true greats emoting under gruff bragging actually works. Similarly when they auto-tune (auto-bleedin’-tune!) Simone on New Day it’s certainly different.
These boys may brag about their obscene wealth (“I stink of success, the new black elite” says Jay-Z), big up the bling, and moan about the burden of fame but they do have the good grace to do it with humour, both bawdy and self-effacing. However, when Jay-Z warns those with the cheek to admire his wife on That’s My Bitch, it’s one of musical highlights of the album but it will also win disapproval from the PC brigade for the flagrantly Ice-T like verses.
Another sign of the royal decree at work here is the ornate, embossed gold cover art. It is naturally devoid of anything as superfluous and vulgar as names and titles. Sure, Watch The Throne has an imperial command but maybe it lacks a knock-out punch. However, any album that name checks Socrates, Axl Rose, and the Olsen twins, samples dialogue from Blades of Glory and invites the sweet-voiced Justin Vernon of Bon Iver on board, was never going to be anything less than mind-boggling. Expect that and more.