If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be
Lyrically Talib Kweli
If you wonder why dudes is dressing funny in rap
They need attention dog, there ain’t no more money in rap
So if you mixing with GarageBand, videos on the Flip cam
I’m a big fan – you got more heart than Bret The Hit Man
But shit damn, it’s the pinnacle, it gets no better
Here comes Watch The Throne, a gold Givenchy-covered testament to materialism by perhaps the two hugest stars in hip hop*, one of the hugest genres of music in the world. Jay-Z and Kanye West trade verses about their preferred haute couture, number of black cards, number of cars (is there another album in recorded history with this many appearances by Maybachs? The most memorable one sports a bumper sticker reading “what would Hova do?”) How could these privileged two drop an ode to their own wealth as the US economy wobbles on the edge of utter collapse? Did they even note the irony of the album’s release a mere two days after the S&P’s historic downgrading of their nation’s credit rating? Jay-Z may be too busy bragging about his own swagtastic legacy, as on “Otis”:
I invented swag, poppin bottles, putting supermodels in the cab
Proof, “I guess I got my swagger back”,** truth
New watch alert, Hublots or the big face Rollie? I got two of those
I feel genuinely sorry for Watch The Throne listeners who miss the deep forest for the bragging tree, because there is so much on this album to explore, if you like lush, intricate art that raises critical questions without providing easy answers.
Let’s go back to the bragging, though. Here are a few things: One, Jay-Z has every reason to brag. He’s a rapper, a great one, and bragging has always been a core part of his art form. “Otis” is full of glorious brags (Touré did an excellent line by line breakdown.) Two, Jay-Z has his tongue near his cheek (“New watch alert”?) Three, when he brags about his wealth, it’s part of a larger, complex artistic project that’s exactly of this moment, even if this moment signals the fall of an empire and the failure of black capitalist pragmatism. You can agree of disagree with Jay-Z’s economic politics, but these rhymes aren’t anachronistic or unaware.
“I wish I could give you this feeling/I’m planking on a million” Jay-Z raps with sincerity on “Gotta have it”. He’s not speaking directly to me, or his other millions of white listeners as he revisits Bed Stuy in a (Maybach!) convertible with Mr. West at his side. This album isn’t a guided meditation on materialism for an imagined rainbow (or real white wall) of rich people, but it is often a call to black empowerment and against the systemic racism in the US. The album gets more explicitly political as it goes on. Fred Hampton, Coretta Scott and Martin Luther King, Malcolm and Betty are all invoked at various points. Jay-Z and Kanye’s concept of “Black excellence” is a major theme. It surely hasn’t eluded them that black people have suffered disproportionately from our recent recession. The gum flapping over our “post-racial” era is a lie, obscuring the fact that the wealth gap between blacks and whites is increasing at a terrifying rate (and this is but one of many manifestations of thriving institutional racism addressed overtly or obliquely on Watch the Throne.) Jay-Z raps about Obama, of course, but there aren’t many other black superpower players he can reference. On “Murder to Excellence”, Jay laments:
Only spot a few blacks the higher I go
What’s up to Will? Shout out to O
That ain’t enough…we gonna need a million more
“Kick in the door” Biggie flow
I’m all dressed up with nowhere to go
The thing is: can the global economy support a million more multimillionaires, of any race? Can black people effectively storm the gates of wealth (or tunnel under them, as Jay suggests he has) en mass without massive economic reform (if not revolution)? Jay-Z has always been a practical rather than ideological capitalist–its the game he’s in, so he plays to win, despite seeming to have anticapitalist sympathies. Here, he imagines seeking political asylum in Cuba, echoing his famous claim to be like “Che Guevara with bling on”. That lyrical response to a skeptical journalist is itself reminiscent of Phil Ochs’ theory:
And if there’s any hope for America, it lies in a revolution, and if there’s any hope for a revolution in America, it lies in getting Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara.
In the meantime, Jay-Z has a lot on his mind: What is the source of a king’s power and how is it taken away? How has he, as a black man in America, come to wield that power, and how can he use it for good? Yeah, with great power comes yadda yadda yadda, but Jay-Z is looking at these questions as an artistic philosopher more than a business-ruler. One of my biggest pet peeves about the “Watch the Throne is too materialistic” meme is when proponents invoke Jay-Z’s passion for modern art as just another rich-guy indulgence. The man is a serious artist, of course he likes art. Rappers can appreciate and draw from other art forms. If you can’t see the connection between Jean-Michel Basquiat and hip hop in general (or Jay-Z in particular), I don’t know if I can help you. Kanye makes a Basquiat reference on this album, but Jay doesn’t mention him directly. Still, his influence is all over Jay’s material. In Decoded, Jay-Z writes about his unreleased song “Most Kings” and Charles the First, the Basquiat painting it references. “…Get their heads cut off” is the rest of the line of text in the painting from which the song took its title. Jay-Z writes “I’m trying to rewrite the old script, but Basquiat’s painting sits on my wall like a warning.”***
While this is no “it’s-so-hard-to-be-rich” whinefest, Jay-Z has a number of moments of vulnerability, which are all the more affecting as his empire has been built on being the ultimate winner and the consumate cool character. “Sorry junior, I’ve already ruined you” he raps to a potential future son on “New Day”, and it’s a heavy moment. Later in the same song, he vows “to never leave him even if his mama tweakin’/Cause my dad left me and I promise never repeat him”, lyrics which not only conjure up an unlikely and disturbing image of Beyoncé, but remind us that such a situation may not seem as far-fetched to Jay as to Sasha Fierce’s fans–he did, after all, admit in song to selling crack to his own mother. [Note: This post was written prior to Beyoncé’s public revelation that she is, in fact, pregnant.] “Welcome to the Jungle” is full of pain and regret, much of it focused on the familial, culminating with Jay’s believable assertion “I’m fucking depressed.” Especially when heard in the context of Jay-Z’s own, rich canon, these lines carry serious weight.
It’s not all depressing, or at least it’s not supposed to be. Besides the glorious, layered “Otis”, easier enjoyment comes in the form of the Bruno Mars-assisted “Lift Off”, which features a triumphant Beyoncé hook. “Niggas in Paris” is less purely sunny, but weird, goofy fun as Jay and ‘Ye go James Baldwin around a pair of oddly pointed samples from, of all things, Blades of Glory. Then there’s the mixed-bag of “That’s My Bitch”: Ely Jackson of La Roux, among others, provide killer vocals over a fantastic “Apache”-sampling beat courtesy of ‘Ye and Q-tip. Much of the entertainment value in initial listening, though, comes from the suspense of wondering if Jay-Z will follow Kanye in concluding his verse with the titular phrase, especially after he first subtly, then explicitly discusses Beyoncé. The answer is: kind of? He says it, but trails off, as if we might not notice his final word under that monster beat. It’s odd, if Jay-Z believes he’s effectively re-purposed the pejorative, why hide it? If he doesn’t have confidence in his own usage, why use it? His apparent confusion is understandable, it come after an almost on-point righteous take down of the racism that prevents women of color from becoming national beauty icons. “Put some colored girls in the MOMA” he raps. It’s unfortunate that Jay-Z is apparently lamenting the lack of inclusion of women of color in the art, not making the art. He could have critiqued white supremacist beauty standards without positioning objectification as the preferable alternative. It’s a strange song, on which Jay sounds excited, but Kanye (in a rare moment for this album) is more comfortable.
And what about that other half of the duo that’s kind-of trying to make people call them “The Throne”? Kanye has some good lines (“I wrote Jesus Walks, I’m never going to hell” is particularly striking in its simultaneous shocking boast and self-lacerating subtext), but his most exciting contributions to this album are as an architect of its fantastic sound and in inspiring Jay-Z to do such excellent work. Many of Kanye’s rhymes are retreads of material he covered on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with no additional depth of insight: he is persecuted and alone, he plays perverted Henry Higgens to wide-eyed semi-innocents, he enjoys a marriage-themed hookup in a public bathroom, he declares his allegience to non-monogamy. One of West’s most admirable qualities is his drive to push himself as an artist. With the possible exception of 808s and Heartbreak’s autotuned detour, his writing and performance on each of his albums has been dramatically better than the last. It’s been exciting to watch him grow, so it’s disappointing that here, despite smirking all over every song, Yeezy rarely really shines. Yet, he is needed. Nitsuh Abebe evokes hilarious and vivid imagery in arguing for Ye’s place on/in The Throne:
It’s a portrait of two black men thinking through the idea of success in America…It’s not a topic that deserves to be scrubbed up, either; there are things about Kanye’s tiresome self-involvement and moody debauchery — the way he sounds like some sullen hip-hop emperor, stalking around the crumbling gilded palace of his own psyche, muttering angrily and getting aggressive with the help — that belong in any such portrait.
Watch the Throne is a complex and thoughtful album on which two of best rappers alive look at themselves, and through themselves onto the legacy of hip hip (lyrical and musical references to hip hop’s history abound) and hip hop’s place in the USA’s history and future. Given how uncertain that future is, the throne is a precarious place to be. Thankfully for the listener, such unease lends itself to compelling artistic creation. Hopefully it will continue to spark dialogue, as in “Notice (Know This)” elder rap statesman Chuck D’s response to “Otis”.
*Eminem would be the obvious third of a trinity.
**The sampled quote is from “All I Need” off 2001’s The Blueprint
*** Jay-Z, Decoded (New York: Siegel & Grau, 2010), 95.