AU ABROAD

The Throne (Jay-Z and Kanye West) - Watch The Throne (2011 LP)

I'll open up this review by concentrating on a seemingly negligible line by Jay-Z on the Neptunes-produced "Gotta Have It"

"Buellar had a Muller but I switched it for a Mille 'cause I'm richer, and prior to this shit was moving freebase."

Most listeners would hear that line and think the same thing many people (mostly death metal fans) think about rap - it makes little sense and is telling of how unintelligent and uncreative rappers are.

However, consider these observations:

1. Muller = Frank Muller watch
2. Mille = Richard Mille watch, which he pronounces as "Milli" (million) because he's Richer (pronounced in a way that it sounds like Richard).
3. The same "Richer"/"Richard" = Richard Pryor
4. "Prior" = "Pryor"
5. Richard Pryor starred in the 1988 movie "Moving," he also suffered severe burns in 1980 while freebasing cocaine (hence "moving freebase")

That's more than five sly references to pop culture in one neat, intricate bar. These kind of hidden references are not uncommon with Jay-Z and many other skilled rappers, but this is also something that is criminally overlooked when judging not only Hov, but hip-hop in general. In order to understand good rap, you have to understand the culture (mostly happenings within hip-hop culture - so you could say the music is culturally exclusive in a way) they put into their rhymes - this is why most people outside of hip-hop ignorantly detract.

Gems like the above are peppered throughout Watch The Throne, the collaborative album between Jay-Z and Kanye West, now collectively known as The Throne.

Expectations were overwhelmingly high for the project, seeing as arguably the two biggest figures in hip-hop were putting their minds and talents together to bring us a potential classic. It makes sense - when looking back on the two moguls' work together, you see nothing but quality - from "Never Let Me Down" to "Run This Town."

Personally, I expected, and wanted, a more old-fashioned hip-hop sound on the album, with the likes of Pete Rock and DJ Premier working with Jay/Ye to take us back to the 90's - but there's little of that on here. Instead, what we get really does sound like a marriage between The Blueprint 3 and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy - this is by no means a bad thing.

NOTE: I will take the track-by-track approach. Since hip-hop fans love to dissect collaboration songs and always say who 'won' (whose performance stood out amongst the rest) I'll include who I think won out of Kanye and Jay at the end of each song.

1. "No Church in the Wild" Feat Frank Ocean

We are introduced to the album through "No Church In The Wild" which, beat-wise, sounds like a very dark and moody version of Jay's Blueprint 3 intro "What We Talkin' 'Bout." However, instead of Luke Steele, the first voice we hear on the album is the featured Odd Future Wolf Gang member Frank Ocean who flawlessly croons through the hook before Jay attacks the beat with ferocious lyricism, invoking that aforementioned wit he is so known for. The album is already off to a brilliant start, but as the frequency dims and Ocean's bridge threatens to steal the show, Mr West brings his A-game, spitting out bars which (in my opinion) result in the first time ever that Mr West has stolen the spotlight from Jigga.

Winner: Kanye West

The pace has been set - the two compete throughout the album with respective wins and losses, as the production shines throughout. We all know how amazing the production was on Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, well that style of beat-making is re-produced on WTT and if critics aren't going to praise the album for the rappers' technical proficiency, they will at least have to acknowledge that these songs show off some of the best production on a commercial hip-hop album in the past decade.

2. "Lift Off" Feat Beyonce

The listed feature of Beyonce on second track "Lift Off" threatens to re-create the mediocrity of tracks like "Hollywood" or "Deja Vu," but this is the best track 'B' has done with her hubby. Although, it remains one of the albums not-as-good tracks, with Jay and Kanye seeming to take a backseat to Beyonce's larger-than-life hook, in fact the last minute, when the production changes dramatically, is significantly better than most of the song. Still, the epic, celebratory feel of the whole song really radiates energy and will probably be a stand-out in live sets.

Winner: Kanye West

3. "Ni**as in Paris"

The curiously-titled "Ni**as in Paris" continues that epic feel but leaves Beyonce behind to give us a club track filled with testosterone and "I'm-richer-than-everyone" raps (which I am going to refer to as 'champagne rap'), an all-to-common theme in their verses throughout the rest of the album. Critics have attacked the fact that the album is full with champagne rap, but sometimes it's not what you say - it's how you say it. "Paris" is flawlessly structured, with a frantic drum loop and even a twist towards the end, with The Throne taking it to out-of-space and filling our ears with banging distortion as Kanye successfully hypes his listeners up with a chant that makes you feel untouchable.

Winner: Jay-Z

4. "Otis"

The first official single from WTT comes up next, "Otis" which succeeds in sounding like nothing that has come before it. Kanye has turned Otis Redding's "Try A Little Tenderness" into one of the most creative rap singles to surface in a long time. This combined with a brilliant back-and-forth between Jigga and Yeezy keeps this song as one of the album's best and something they can be very, very proud of. A flawless example of sampling and a testament to Kanye's talent as a producer.

Winner: Jay-Z

5. "Gotta Have It"

The aforementioned "Gotta Have It" comes next and really sounds nothing like a Neptunes production. With an eastern-sounding chant in the background, Jay and Kanye play tag with their bars with Hov coming out the clear winner. The only thing bad about this track is that Jay-Z references that lame trend, planking.

Winner: Jay-Z

6. "New Day"

Serving as a letter to their unborn children, “New Day” stands out as one of the album’s finest with some brilliant production from Wu-Tang’s The RZA and an original interpolation of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” The concept track almost seems to be self-depracating as The Throne tell their to-be kids not to repeat any of their own mistakes.

Winner: Jay-Z

7. "That’s My Bitch" Feat Elly Jackson & Justin Vernon

La Roux’s Elly Jackson and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon both get funky on the song’s hook while the track tries to mix electro, breaks, and hip-hop into one coherent club track. Critics have been slamming this track, but I quite like it. The unmastered version leaked awhile ago and served as our first sample of the album, and while the beat here is much more refined, I preferred the faster pace of the unmastered verse. What shines here more than anything though is Justin Vernon’s rhythmic vocals, sound like nothing you have ever heard from Bon Iver – he actually sounds very similar to Kanye’s buddy Charlie Wilson here.

Winner: Kanye West

8. "Welcome To The Jungle" Feat Swizz Beatz

Swizz leaves his niche at home and brings The Throne a monster beat, with a frantic riff and addictive drum loop while Kanye quietens down and lets Jigga take the limelight, and he sure does take it (“I look in the mirror, my only opponent”). Kanye’s limited contribution is 4 forgettable bars and a reference to OutKast’s “Da Art of Storytelling.”

Winner: Jay-Z

9. "Who Gon’ Stop Me"

Mr West takes Flux Pavillion’s dub-step monster “I Can’t Stop” and flips it for the album’s trendiest song. While it’s much better than most dub-step infused hip-hop the track doesn’t really pick up until halfway through when the beat switches with a more chaotic, futuristic sound, with Jigga ripping through the track with a monster verse - and while he isn’t saying much, it really pumps you up.

Winner: Jay-Z

10. "Murder to Excellence"

This song is really 2-in-1, first giving us “Murder” and then “Excellence,” with two very different beats distinguishing the tracks. “Murder” is perhaps the best track on the album, with an addictive chant serving as the backdrop for Jay and Kanye while they spit about murder rates and the limits of the hood mentality. “Excellence” is a step out of the ghetto and a step into the world of shiny suites and private jets – the most reoccuring motif throughout the album.

Winner: Jay-Z

11. "Made in America" Feat Frank Ocean

Odd Future’s resident crooner makes his second appearance here and shows a much more light-hearted soul here, and while the hook may take awhile to grow on you, Frank Ocean can be proud of his work here. The Throne trade nostalgic raps about their respective rages-to-riches tales, a theme which Jay-Z has always shone in. However, maybe it’s just that Jay has revisited this theme one too many times, but he falls flat when compared to Kanye’s surprisingly humble re-telling of his dream coming true.

Winner: Kanye West

12. "Why I Love You" Feat Mr Hudson

I expected a middle-of-the-road song as soon as I saw the listed feature, while I like Mr Hudson, his colloborations with Kanye and Jay have always left me disappointed. “Why I Love You” is much different, here Hudson, half-singing, half screaming, delivers another larger-than-life hook that is much better than Beyonce’s contribution on “Lift Off”. The Throne address betrayal, and ungrateful ex-friends, while simultaneously rubbing their success in the faces of their former colleagues, and forgiving them. The last minute, which sees the MC’s yet again tag-teaming and finishing each others lines, is one of the finest moments on the whole album.

Winner: Jay-Z

The album is predominently about their success and how richer they are than everyone else, but at the same time, sometimes it’s just not what you say, but how you say it. Keeping that in mind, Jay-Z and Kanye West fill Watch The Throne with pure wit, slick punchlines, and a certain charm that is extremely hard to resist – top that off with some of the year’s best production and you have an album which lives up to all the ridiculous hype, and while it may be nowhere near as brilliant as their best solo albums, if you don’t compare this album to any of those, you’ll be more than satisfied.

Review Score: 9/10