The most fascinating moment of Watch the Throne occurs on “Gotta Have It,” when the world’s wealthiest and most successful living rappers salute their obvious analogues. “Niggas hate ballas these days,” Jay laments; as evidence, Kanye suggests, “Ain’t that like LeBron James?” Hov’s rhetorical reply registers no surprise, and the exchange feels premeditated, as though the allusion were an early Throne imperative: “Ain’t that just like D. Wade?”
“Gotta Have It” is an unstoppable track, James Brown grunts and buzzy synths propelling some first-order shit-talking that requires serious net worth just to fully comprehend at first blush, and the parallels with the Miami Heat’s mercenary superstars are tantalizing. There may not be a more fascinating psyche in professional sports today than the preternaturally talented, perpetually disappointed James. Enter Yeezy, a visionary by any standard, whose art seems doomed to forever contend with his defiant, immature public persona. The two even subscribe to the same egotistic tautology — critics and ad-hominem haters as one and the same — a reflexive denial of one’s own flaws that amounts to total absolution, or else total negation, of the self.
Meanwhile, Jay — like Wade, the savvier of the two and less prone to the sort of “when keeping it real goes wrong” moments that West can’t seem to avoid — confronts a similar identity issue. He’s a leading man in his own right, and his presence has an undeniable impact on the tone of WTT; together, the two are far more comfortable with whimsy and braggadocio than the emotional bloodletting Kanye tends toward when left to his own devices. At the same time, his star has dimmed ever so slightly as he’s struggled to redefine his on-record persona, repeatedly failing to make mogul talk nearly as compelling as cooking rocks and hard knocks.
The Heat’s Big Two (here we equate Bosh with Cudi, another superfluous and overhyped role player) stumbled to a middling 9-8 start in their first season, and Jay-Z and Kanye West take a while to hit their stride. The opening Frank Ocean feature “No Church in the Wild,” anchored by a visceral guitar loop, is the kind of song no one but Kanye would even try to pull off. Alas, it’s almost comically self-serious, Hov overreaching on some intro-level philosophy while ’Ye tries to convince himself he wouldn’t mind girls cheating on him if only they’d just be honest about it. Second track “Lift Off” never does, despite the soaring synth strings and Beyoncé belting the hook into submission, and features maybe four bars of actual, you know, rapping. But there’s an air of inevitability to Watch the Throne that’s again reminiscent of the Big Three-era Heat, a team so preposterously loaded that they could hardly fail to be dominant. In this regard, the album’s title couldn’t be more accurate; as an obvious and long-awaited pairing of superlative talents, Jay-Z and Kanye West are something more to behold than appraise.
At heart, Watch the Throne is a Kanye West production. It’s more of a holding pattern than the seismic leap of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but WTT covers a ton of territory with aplomb; Kanye’s hallmark versatility and tasteful maximalism as a producer are again in full view. There’s the synthy, scratchy Apache homage “That’s My Bitch,” where ’Ye again features his favorite lily-white indie boy Justin Vernon, right behind the record’s most personal track, “New Day,” an expertly constructed contrast of mournfulness (Nina Simone’s “I’m Feeling Good” vocal, time-stretched and pitch-corrected) and uplift (horn fanfare) that’s matched by the pair’s alternately regretful and hopeful verses. Over a similarly preposterous sample, “Otis” sees the duo in excellent form; “Niggas in Paris” never falters, even when its staccato electronics and insistent snare shots give way to an 808s-on-swag breakdown halfway through.
WTT is far from spotless, and indeed there are plenty of clunky moments. “Who Gon’ Stop Me” puts West’s metallic, frequency-distorted chorus over the drop from Flux Pavilion’s “I Can’t Stop,” and it’s being the most unexpected grime banger of all time — until the beat switches, the bass drops out, and Jay’s left to flail around for two minutes of aimless rhymes and way too many breathy pauses. The ever-unwelcome Swizz Beatz shows up again, as annoying here on “Welcome to the Jungle” as he was on “So Appalled.” Sequencing the “Murder to Excellence” suite next to “Made It in America” betrays a lack of either foresight or purpose, a convoluted and contradictory take on race relations that, unfortunately, permeates the whole album. This is the most penetrating criticism of the project at large: For all of their high-minded “black elite” bluster, the two are really just fucking around. WTT might be an exceptionally fun listen, but it’s never cohesive and seems more than willing to live with its own mistakes.
That said, it’s hard to deny the quality here. This is “luxury rap” defined, not to mention the best form we’ve seen from Jay since the American Gangster soundtrack. We hold these truths to be, essentially, self-evident: that Kanye West is making some exceptionally ambitious beats these days; that Sean Carter is hip-hop royalty; that both have more money than they could spend in three lifetimes. Evaluating their artistic output is almost definitional; Watch the Throne is good because Jay-Z and Kanye West do not — could not — make bad rap music. If you swapped out “Welcome to the Jungle” and the half-hearted bombast of “Lift Off” for stellar bonus tracks “The Joy” and “Illest Motherfucker Alive,” and eliminated the second half of “Who Gon’ Stop Me,” you would have ostensibly constructed a better album. But you wouldn’t feel any differently about the final product; it’s still our foremost hip-hop artist alongside his spotty but reinvigorated mentor, a known quantity that wouldn’t improve its reputation with a more concise tracklist. You still “Gotta Have It,” and it’s still gon’ annihilate the festivals.