More than any other genre of music, rap is personality driven. We loved Rakim for his stoic swagger, we loved Ol’ Dirty Bastard for the scenes he caused. Still, these characters would be nothing if they hadn’t made tangible songs for their audience to enjoy. This rule almost always holds true, but with one glaring exception. There’s a tipping point of celebrity. Precisely because rap is so personality driven, immense fame can inflate that personality until it completely eclipses an artist’s actual musical output.
Jay-Z and Kanye West are very famous, if you hadn’t noticed. You probably did though, just like you’ve also already noticed that they made an album together titled Watch the Throne that showed up on iTunes Sunday night. They’re not merely famous either, they’re famous and important. This isn’t Casey Anthony or Jersey Shore, these guys matter, dammit. They’ve both spent the last decade carefully cultivating their own myths, and the world bought into those completely: Jay as the hard scrabble hustler who turned a single crack rock into a well-oiled and legal media empire (struggle begets success). Kanye, the sensitive artist from a comfortable background whose incessant public outbursts serve to illuminate how fame is the biggest burden he’s ever been saddled with (success begets struggles). These tales are so hardwired into the public consciousness that the music plays second fiddle to them. They could’ve slid a blank disc into that hideous gold vomit case and it still would’ve sparked a thousand heady think pieces and barber shop conversations; more than a few would still lean positive. They know this and they love themselves for it. And they’re going to tell you how important they are for an hour because that’s the easiest way for them to stay important. Watch the Throne is a full length display of self-perpetuating fame by way of self-perpetuating ego.
This arrogance comes with a certain freedom, an audacity of security. To its credit, Watch the Throne is one of the more explicitly experimental major label rap records in recent memory. Its tracks abruptly splinter in different directions, IDM glitches and dubstep warbles burst sporadically. When those bursts connect at the right angles, they do so blissfully. “N*gg*s In Paris,” produced by Kanye’s latest G.O.O.D. signee Hit-Boy, bounces blips with an accordion elasticity before turning into a violent low-end crunch. On “No Church In The Wild,” Kanye himself blows out his early model of piercing hard rock riffs into slow building and epic stuttering electro. But neither rapper possesses the humility to self-edit the failed experiments. As the solid gold cover suggests, Watch the Throne contains King Midas delusions. Producer Sham “Sak Pase” Joseph buries the otherwise lovely (though weirdly saccharine) Frank Ocean collab “Made In America” under 8-bit computer death sounds, and “New Day,” produced by Wu-Tang Clan‘s RZA, autotunes a giant vocal sample from Nina Simone‘s “Feeling Good” for no reason other than to offend both Simone and Wu fans. Where most rap beats are produced by one or two artists at most, the Throne’s liners are filled with co-producers and additional producers. Their song construction is an additive process, too many cooks smearing ideas on top of ideas, muddling the best parts under the worst.
There’s rapping too, because they’re rappers. Jay seems rejuvenated or at least re-motivated here, bending cadences in a way he hasn’t since he realized that the technical superiority of Blueprint 2 wasn’t as marketable as the simple sentimentality of its predecessor. He’s rusty sometimes, but he’s trying. (Better rusty than his drab whisper flow.) Kanye sounds a little more subdued than usual, understandable given the violent catharsis of his past two LPs. Or maybe it just seems that way because of the contrast. Jay has a naturally better rap voice and, even in his late-career malaise, knows how to move around a track more comfortably than his protégé. This is particularly obvious when the duo splits verses into tag teams, like on the Neptunes-produced “Gotta Have It.” Every time Jay passes the mic to Ye for a bar the track deflates a little.
The songs’ concepts are vague and slippery at best. It’s like they’re playing associative games, pinning tails on every keyword they’ve written on their dry erase board: ego, fame, God, race relations, death, legacy, upward mobility, expensive sh*t, sh*t that is more expensive than that expensive sh*t, the most expensive sh*t. It’s striking too how withered both rappers’ hit-making instincts have become. Even with the good-to-great moments here, Def Jam won’t carve anything even resembling a hit out of this mess. The over dramatic goth-hop cut “H.A.M.” already flopped at radio six months ago despite production — at least on a skeletal level — by chart darling Lex Luger. It’s a Watch the Throne bonus track now. The street single and Dilla-esque exercise in boom bap efficiency, “Otis,” functions much like Jay’s “D.O.A.” It exists only to prove their old-rap purity to the purists. They’ll probably throw “Lift Off,” a plodding, formless blob of stadium pop electro, to market next. Beyoncé’s on it, so fingers crossed for that one.
As you might imagine, hitlessness is a problem for the two biggest pop rappers on earth. Not for their bank accounts, of course. Their fame fuels the record sales, but what fuels their egos? Maybe Jay and Kanye’s continued self-mythologizing will prove strong enough to make Watch the Throne a consensus success, regardless of the songs contained within. They’ve both done that before. But what if these grand talents combined to make music that justified their legacies, instead of simply celebrating those successes?
For more photos of the Throne’s recording session, check out this gallery at MTV News. Watch the Throne is out now.