Sunday, 14 August 2011

Watch The Throne; Jay-Z, Kanye West and the American Dream

Originally intended as a 5-track EP by Jay-Z and his protegé turned superstar Kanye West Watch The Throne evolved into something much bigger than initially planned. The recording process, taking place across hotel rooms and studios in Hawaii, Australia, New York, France, England, Dubai and Los Angeles, resulted in numerous incarnations of the album which were scrapped or re-done due to creative differences. Being one of the only major albums of recent years to avoid an internet leak it was finally released on August 8th through Kanye West and Jay-Z's own labels Roc-A-Fella Records, Roc Nation, and Def Jam Recordings.

Featuring guest vocals from Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, La Roux and Bon Ivor's Justin Vernon and production from the likes of The Neptunes, Q-Tip, RZA and Swizz Beatz plus (expensive) samples of James Brown, Otis Redding, Nina Simone and Curtis Mayfield it's a hefty concoction of talent, influences and money put together by two of hip hop's biggest names. It's an album rife with radio-friendly hooks and stellar production but one that lacks unity and direction as a whole, one might call it eclectic or uneven depending on which way you look at it. West's audacity and spontaneity leads either to moments of inspiration or clumsiness (he's still going on about that South Park episode) while Jay-Z is more restrained and ultimately comes across as more consistent.

As you would expect with that title and cover art the topics of fame and luxury permeate much of the album as the pair celebrate their success rather awkwardly at a time when global economy is still recovering from major blows. Nonetheless it is not entirely self-congratulatory and gloating as some critics have brazenly stated, but the message does seem at times either didactic or muddled. Take Murder To Excellence for example, which begins with a focus on Black-on-Black murder before shifting over to look at success in the form of wealth. West delivers a stellar verse in the first half, "And I'm from the murder capitol where they murder for capital... I feel the pain in my city wherever I go, 314 soldiers died in Iraq, 509 in Chicago," which is later juxtaposed against the emptiness of the rags to riches American Dream of success as Jay-Z comes in with "I'm all dressed up with nowhere to go" and West replies "new crib, watch a movie 'cause ain't nothin' on the news but the blues, hit the mall, pick up some Gucci now ain't nothin' new but your shoes." They seem equally dissatisfied and intoxicated by gaudiness, critical of Capitalism yet completely obsessed and consumed by it.

The album opens with No Church In The Wild, with tales of coked-up excess and late nights, which is followed by the glossy Beyoncé-driven track Lift Off which serves as a mission statement of ambitious grandeur for the remainder of the album to come, but one that the album never really reaches and sustains. Niggas In Paris tells more tales of excess, this time in the French capitol, but it's not until the fourth track, Otis, that Carter & West begin explicitly talking about themselves, but the focus stays firmly on wealth and the high-life. The gloating reaches a pinnacle as West raps "I made Jesus Walks, I'm never goin' to hell/Couture-level flow, it's never going on sale/Luxury rap, the Hermes of verses/Sophisticated ignorance, write my curses in cursive" and in the Spike Jonze-directed video for the song the pair are shown against a backdrop of a large-scale American flag, Jay-Z raising his arms in the air and smiling to his line "Build your fences, we diggin' tunnels /Can't you see we gettin' money up under you?" Ignorant? Yes. Sophisticated? Not really.

New Day sees them in a much better light, as they rap to their future sons about their hopes for themselves as fathers, the mistakes they've made in the past and the ones that they never want to make. It's a rare moment of poignant honesty that adds some emotional depth to proceedings. Welcome To The Jungle is another emotionally charged track that sees Jay-Z describing an introspective moment of personal crisis in the opening verse. In the second half of the track he references the dreams of Biggie and the death of Tupac in Las Vegas and then goes on to allude to numerous big-name rappers without mentioning their names, from P. Diddy to Lil Wayne and even himself. "My dreams is big /Reality set in /Let off a clip from a automatic weapon /Through shots in the door /It died in Vegas /Though it fought so hard /I knew it wouldn't make it" he raps, and it seems to me that with this statement he is referring to the view that the majority of 'real' hip hop died with Biggie and Tupac after which he acknowledges the materialism and superficiality that even he has fallen prey to; "Champagne for the pain /Weed for the low /God damn I'm so high /Where the fuck did I go? /I'm losing myself /I'm stuck in the moment."

If hip hop has been assimilated into the mainstream then Watch the Throne is a shining example of this ongoing hip pop movement. Despite the incredible production and occasional moments of brilliance the album is too confused and ultimately arbitrary; a hip hop album squeezed into a pop mold by two rappers who are clearly frustrated by capitalistic American society yet perfectly willing to pander to it in the name of success. Although both rappers seem to be aware of the ironies and contradictions of their roles and viewpoints, they seem unable to find any resolute direction or stance. The first half of the album revels in 'bling' while the second half of the album wallows in the emptiness of the American Dream; "I got my liberty choppin' grams up /Street justice, I pray God understand us /I pledge allegiance to all the scramblers/This is the Star Spangled Banner." It ends with Why I Love You, a look at greed and betrayal and the pair defending their "throne," asking their peers a question they could just as easily ask each other; "Me or the money, what you loyal to?"

For a long time the primary role models for young African Americans were rappers and athletes and these were the roles that were aspired to. With the election of Obama as the first Black president of the United States came a landmark historical moment. Carter & West are both in positions of power and influence, West caused a massive stir when he went on live television for an appeal for the New Orleans flood crisis and said that "George Bush doesn't care about Black people," so it's disappointing to see that when they come together for what should be a crowning collaboration with massive potential for scope they have very little to say and no inclination to put this influence and power to good use, whether in the form of a positive message for the youth of today or something provocative or subversive to elicit a reaction. The pair are instead almost entirely complacent, no doubt ready to reap the monetary gain from their diluted brand of hip hop for the masses, selling capitalism straight back to their audience despite the few moments of bittersweet honesty on display here. If Kanye West & Jay-Z see themselves as kings at the throne of hip hop then I'd say it's time for their reign to end.

Click here to read Ghostface Killah's hilarious review of the album

Watch the official video for latest single Otis below and the response song by Chuck D:

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