It was all good just a week ago ...
-- Kanye West, "H.A.M."
We've been watching for "Watch the Throne" (Def Jam/Roc-a-Fella) () all year long. The album, a highly anticipated collaboration between hip-hop icons Kanye West and Jay-Z, has had five release dates. The first single, the audacious and operatic "H.A.M.," appeared in January. "Otis," the second, dropped last month. Amazingly, none of it leaked, and the full album arrived fresh on Monday exclusively via iTunes, quickly becoming the service's No. 1 purchase (and it'll be No. 1 this week on Billboard's chart) before its release in stores Friday.
By then, some buyer's and critic's remorse may have set in. Because as good a record as this is, it's not at all the masterpiece we so want it to be.
As Beyonce asks during "Lift Off," "How many people you know can take it this far?" The question was written, no doubt, amid dreams of the album's inevitable hyperbolic acclaim, much of which has already arrived. Indeed, when forces are joined as mighty as Jay-Z (who once again topped the Forbes Hip-Hop Cash King list this week, citing an income of $37 million during the last 12 months) and Kanye West (who once again said something really, really stupid last weekend, read on), it's easy to assume the creative output would be exponential to their individual legends. But the musical math is never that simple, and "Watch the Throne" is a fairly balanced equation.
Such power and, no doubt, ego might even have held each rapper back a bit. Last week, news broke that the duo -- please call them The Throne -- was squabbling. They pushed previously announced autumn tour dates back toward the holidays and were allegedly bickering over the stage set. West, no surprise, reportedly wants to spend gazillions on a fantastic stage and effects, while Jay-Z -- ever practical, which is probably why he hangs onto $37 million a year -- wanted something simpler, starker, less theatrical. After digesting their recorded efforts, this sounds like a leftover argument from the studio. Really, it's a tug-of-war that's existed between them since Yeezy worked on Hova's first "Blueprint" in 2001, and it's defined much of the hip-hop we've heard from them for 10 years.
But here, the rope goes a little slack. After helping each other craft solo albums brimming with braggadocio, their joint statement still boasts big but is also surprisingly tentative. There's no sense of competition here, only mutual admiration and understanding -- who else could the other talk to, after all, about what it's like to be one of the biggest names in hip-hop? Thus, their musical conversation grows introspective, contemplative, opening the album with a foreboding groove, "No Church in the Wild," featuring Odd Future breakout star Frank Ocean singing, "What's a king to a god? What's a god to a non-believer?" As West winces through a hangover ("Sunglasses and Advil / Last night was mad real"), Jay-Z namedrops Socrates and, in surely a hip-hop first, references Plato's "Euthyphro" on his way to likening West to Jesus and himself to the Holy Ghost. It's not a Lennon-esque, "we're bigger than Jesus" kind of claim; rather, it's a struggle to intellectually cast themselves into something larger, something possessed with a meaning they both find lacking.
Of course, they flash their status and tell tales, filling "Niggas in Paris" -- which has nothing to do with the city except that it's one of many world locations in which this album was recorded, including New York, Australia and Hawaii -- with lurid basketball metaphors and power-play come-ons (and some great Will Ferrell samples), but rarely have these sounded as reluctant, hollow and questioning. "That sh-- cray, ain't it, Jay?" West asks, perpetually seeking validation, then later bragging, "Last week I was in my other Benz." He, in particular, keeps mixing religion into his lust, later likening a pole dancer to Mary Magdalene. It's OK, though, as he concludes elsewhere: "I made 'Jesus Walks' / I'm never going to hell."
Both men get downright vulnerable and melodramatic on "New Day," a track only extraordinary for its naked honesty. Each rapper delivers a verse to their unborn sons, dreaming aloud of bequeathing a life free from the very media firestorm they assist in fueling for themselves. Jay-Z, 41, speaks of passing on sage wisdom ("Look a man dead in his eyes so he know you talk truth / When you speak it, give your word, keep it") and for some reason holds out the possibility that "the day comes I only see him on the weekend" (trouble in Beyonce paradise?). Meanwhile, West, 34, ticks off a laundry list of his many mistakes and how he'll prevent his son from repeating them, including "never let him leave his college girlfriend" (still pining for someone at Chicago State, eh?) and, just to cover all possible bases, "never let him hit the telethon." He also drops this: "Don't want him to be hated all the time, judged" -- which casts extra light on his self-pitying gaffe last weekend, in which he whined to an audience in England (a country bombed and broken by the Luftwaffe), "I walk through the hotel and I walk down the street, and people look at me like I'm f---ing insane, like I'm Hitler." If they didn't before, they do now.
Similarly, "Welcome to the Jungle," finds Jay-Z struggling with personal losses ("paralyzed by the pain" after the death of family members) and nearly questioning his faith. "I'm losing myself ... I'm f---ing depressed ... I'm already dying," he sputters. Don't crank this one at the party. By "Made in America," both rappers re-chronicle their lives in verse and thank their respective maternal figures for guidance and grace, all the while acknowledging the extraordinary luck that helped land them in this position where they contemplate what life means from perches so culturally lofty.
This personal journaling is as extraordinary as "Throne" gets -- some truly arresting moments on an album that otherwise might not get arrested. Musically, it's a broad and featurless patchwork knit together by a typically large cast of producers, including RZA, Q-Tip, Swizz Beatz, Neptunes, Mike Dean and more. West's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" from last year boasts an infinitely more creative sonic palette. There's some filler ("Gotta Have It," "Who Gon Stop Me," "Illest Motherf---er Alive") and an unusual preponderance for old-school samples, from the nicely spliced Redding in "Otis" to a finely woven bit of Nina Simone into "New Day," as if attempting to claim these legends -- and their struggles -- as peers. I don't hear any obvious smash singles on the whole album; "Lift Off" is an organ-grinder monkey next to the King Kong of Jay-Z's own "Empire State of Mind."
The real kicker is liable to be the tour, which -- regardless of the stage set -- should be the year's other must-see royal wedding.