This is my first South by Southwest, so some rookie mistakes are to be expected on Day 1. There were a few instances, however, in which I definitely should have known better. Like, you know, sunscreen.
Hey, have you guys heard of this new rap band called Kanye West and
Jay-Z? Yeah, apparently they released an album exclusively on iTunes
last week that pissed off a lot of record-store owners. Not sure if
you’ve heard of it, so I’ll try to break down “Watch the Throne” for
you, since these guys are kinda obscure.
Or … not.
This marks three consecutive years of blockbuster
hip-hop releases from these two guys who’ve built a close friendship
around their megastar lifestyles, respective talents as artists
(technical rap wizardry for Jigga, arena-blasting, prog-rap production
from ’Ye), and incomparably massive ambition as pop stars. Kanye’s “My
Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” prompted more sterling reviews than any
other album in history and Jay’s “The Blueprint 3” sold remarkably well,
considering the currently dour market for new music. These are two
dudes in their years of maturation, friends, who are bigger than they’ve
ever been and working on a big-ass project because they thought it’d be
cool. Turns out they were right.
While each pop star does stick
to his respective guns (Howitzers, in both cases) on “Watch the Throne,”
they venture into new territory at times and encourage the best in each
other at others. Jay actually emotes to the listener for once, lifting
“Welcome to the Jungle“ and the RZA-produced “New Day” with his
introspection. It’s surprising, unsettling stuff from the
always-cocksure guy known for telling stories that begin with “Once upon
a time, not too long ago/ Nigga like myself had to strong-arm a hoe.”
doesn’t really deliver anything lyric-wise that stands out from any of
his work on “MBDTF,” but he and Jay do bust out a little buddy-rap that
ranges from playful to dangerous. It’s most easily evident on the Otis
Redding tribute-sampling “Otis,” and even more clear when you watch the
Spike Jonze-directed video that hit the Internet last Friday. The
anthemic stomping on “Who Gon Stop Me” turns terrifying when you realize
two of the biggest rappers in the game are playing off each other, and
their back-and-forth banter even elevates “Why I Love You” from a
potential throwaway track into something very dangerous-sounding.
hard to say that Jay’s presence is more vital to the collaboration when
each track features a beat that’s either the soundtrack to a robotic
Armageddon or anchored by a dead soul singer’s grunting and crooning.
Combined with his “MBDTF” material, the tracks from “Watch the Throne”
and a couple of songs on his third album,“Graduation,” it sounds like
Kanye’s stocking up for an assault on arenas and outdoor stages the
world over. But more on the R&B sampling: “Otis” and “The Joy” are
both backboned by two of Mr. Redding’s and Mr. Curtis Mayfield’s finest
works, chopped and screwed into a very sexual and playful rhythmic grind
that prompts Hov to ask, “Sounds so soulful, don’t you agree?” We’re
forced to comply.
Even after a few listens, it doesn’t become
immediately clear who benefits more from “Watch the Throne,” so I’m
going to cop out and say it’s smooth, up-and-coming R&B voice Frank
Ocean. Still impossibly young (he’s been cutting his teeth with the Odd
Future crew), Ocean lends immediate, memorable choruses to opening track
“No Church in the Wild” and the tender “Made in America,” that,
cushioned in very posh Kanye synthesizers, set distinct tones for each
Other observations: Kanye is as culturally savvy as ever,
sampling a Will Ferrell line from “Blades of Glory” to prove David
Byrne’s point that sometimes music just doesn’t need to make sense (“I
got my niggas in Paris, and they goin’ gorillas”). And don’t forget
Ocean’s Ricky Bobby-referencing “Sweet Baby Jesus” chorus that’s
actually more sweet than boneheaded. And the “married Kate & Ashley”
tease at Prince William on “Niggas in Paris” is just hilarious.
chorus on “Liftoff” (her only tangible contribution to the record,
surprisingly) doesn’t really manage the same level of pop brilliance as
Rihanna’s more provocative guest spot on “All of the Lights” from
“MBDTF.” I think this actually serves as a good illustration of the
difference between the two albums, that “Throne,” while all over the map
in terms of its thematic and lyrical focus (I didn’t even mention the
men discussing life for their unborn children or the list of black
saints sweetly sung on “Made in America”), doesn’t delve as deep into
that twisted, American pop-star ethos as the previous record.
isn’t to say that “Watch the Throne” isn’t socio-culturally charged.
Kanye starts off pretty aggressive against “White America” on “Gotta
Have It” before backing off to name-drop Ferris Bueller and diving in
again. “Murder to Excellence” is probably the most fixated on this
topic, ending with “Black excellence.” Also, Jay’s observation that “all
the pretty icons is all white” is out of place behind Kanye’s too-cool
club verse on “That’s My Bitch,” but valid nonetheless. Perhaps he’s
trying to apologize to wife Beyoncé for his collaborator’s views on
Anyhoo, here’s a brief message to each guy on this album:
Kanye, get out on the road and start blowing stadiums up! And Jay: It’s
OK to let that tough-guy façade down every once in a while. Give us an
album full of raps about how you feel, and I guarantee people will
reciprocate well. —Matt Carney