1. On the occasion of Kanye West releasing his new album, let’s talk about one of his more underrated ones:
2. ”Ye” rhymes with “Jay.” Who knew?
3. I would rather hear Jay-Z and Kanye West performing “Niggas in Paris” in Paris 11 consecutive times than I would hear John Cage performing Erik Satie’s “Vexations” 840 times.
4. Rolling Stone’s Jody Rosen raises an excellent point, boldface mine: “Jay-Z and Kanye aren’t nouveau riche upstarts. They’re hip-hop monarchs, and Watch the Throne doesn’t shrink from its own hype. The songs are packed with samples of some of the most hallowed figures in African-American music – James Brown, Otis Redding, Nina Simone – and it’s clear that Jay and Kanye consider those greats their peers. This is an album that takes aim at the history books.”
I hear your eyerolls. What’s the difference between that, and his humbler debut into music (and I’m not solely talking about The College Dropout), where his beats were similarly packed with samples of some of the most hallowed figures in African-American music – Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone again? Mostly the fact that Kanye didn’t consider himself equal to them back then. And two years after Watch the Throne, setting his eyes a little higher, he probably didn’t consider those greats his peers anymore.
5. This was considered a disappointment at the time of its release because people wanted as game-changing as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and what they got was a victory lap. But it’s a great album: better than either artist’s albums in 2007, to say nothing of about half of Jay-Z’s discography.
6. It shouldn’t be surprising that this outsold My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Jay-Z’s name still holds a lot of weight (for some reason), and I remember a friend describing “Runaway” as “weird” (I wonder what she thought of (the end of) “Blame Game”); this one’s lead single wasn’t paired with a 30-minute video.
7. The first four songs are excellent, and set the bar unreasonably high for the rest of the album. “No Church in the Wild” starts things off with a simply bad-ass bass-line whose badassedness is accentuated by the space; simple drum programming, the breaths of the rappers warming up, and halfway through the verse, a helicopter-blade synth melody. The choruses are handled by Frank Ocean, who provides the album with two of the catchiest choruses he’s ever sung (ever), but make sure to check out the backing vocals that come in at the 1:28 mark (with the synths) – that’s top-tier Kanye West doing right there.
8. ”Lift Off” doesn’t just continue the momentum; like its name suggests, it takes it even higher. Beyonce, whose voice is a sledgehammer, finally sounds at home on a song whose subject matter and sonics are about being larger than life. And while Jay-Z blink-and-you’ll-miss-it verse is a complete write-off (especially puzzling when considering his verses on “No Church in the Wild” and “Niggas in Paris” that sandwich it), it doesn’t matter because, like the rest of the album, he’s being carried by these beats. And the beat is again, top-tier Kanye West: huge helpings of counterpoint, both in the main theme (the string line underpinned by the synth, and then the bass) and in the chorus (Beyonce being joined by the gorgeous backing vocals, both underpinned by the bass). Meanwhile, the synth/percussion as radio transmission (or was it the other way around?) was a genius move (the first thing I thought of was the coffee-drip of David Bowie and Brian Eno’s “Sound and Vision”).
9. ”Niggas in Paris” is pure, unadulterated fun (as often Hit-Boy’s beats are – man came up with some of the biggest bangers ever and secured his placement as DJ of Valhalla), and the team knew it too: the Blades of Glory samples turn from mere film quotable into proper intro (“We’re going to stake to one song and one song only”) and transition (“Get the people going!”) due to their self-awareness. Jay-Z manages to impress (“Psycho: I’m liable to go Michael, take your pick / Jackson, Tyson, Jordan, Game 6”) while Kanye West somehow turns stupidity into mantras (“Can we get married at the maaaaallllllllll”; “That shit cray, AIN’T IT JAY? / What she order? FISH FILET?”; the sudden deep-voice antic to deliver to “married Kate and Ashley” punchline; “HUH?”). The second part is functional.
10. And “Otis,” the only song here solely produced by Kanye West – though weakest of the first four, for sure – remains one of the odder Kanye West = songs to become a hit (I have distinct memories of it coming on continuously while staying at the Gladstone with my then-girlfriend), due to the way Kanye West chops Otis Redding’s grunt and then turns it into the driving force of the song. I’m almost certain this is the inspiration for what Jamie xx does to the bridge of Gil Scott-Heron’s voice on “I’ll Take Care of You” and the inspiration for Drake and Rihanna keeping it on “Take Care.”
11. There are four songs here where Kanye West isn’t one of the main producers or doesn’t appear on the production credits at all: “Gotta Have It” (produced mainly by The Neptunes), “Welcome to the Jungle” (produced by Swizz Beats), “Murder to Excellence (produced by Swizz again and S1) and “Made in America” (produced by Shama Joseph, who I’ve never heard of before). From worst to best:
“Welcome to the Jungle”, whose synth pulse plays its hand early.
“Gotta Have It”, a sample-driven palette cleanser (but what a sample it is) after the preceding four songs.
Frank Ocean’s choruses distinguish “Made in America” and if it weren’t for him, it would probably be the second worst song on the album. The odd one-note pings throughout, which I find endearing, would have rendered the song inert if it weren’t for the piano line halfway through the choruses and the verses.
“Murder to Excellence”, which begins with the heavy finger-picking of an acoustic bass before a children’s choir comes in and drums cycle the guitar out. The second part – more inert – is, like the second part of “Niggas in Paris,” functional.
12. Q-Tip keeps showing up in the most unexpected places, in this case, as co-producer on “That’s My Bitch.” Great rhythm thanks to the synthesized bass line and the tribal drums. Great hooks thanks to an uncredited La Roux. Forgettable bridge, which I’m just not learning is Justin Vernon. Better luck next time, brah (and whaddyaknow – man kills it on Yeezus’ “I’m In It”).
13. ”New Day” is gorgeous. Nina Simone’s voice is manipulated until it doesn’t even sound human anymore, let alone Nina Simone, and it might take you awhile to realize that the sample here is “Feeling Good.” And appropriately, both rappers stop with the braggadocio and talk about something more appropriate to the beat, namely, their future children (“I mean I might even make him be Republican / So everybody know he love white people”).
Here’s Jody Rosen again on one of the weaknesses of the album:
”Such moments are too scarce on Watch the Throne: More often we hear about “big rocks” and “gold bottles” – which, by the way, rhymes with “scold models.” In the midst of an early 21st-century Great Recession, the vicarious experience of opulence may be enough for Jay’s and Kanye’s millions of fans. But on a record this ambitious, this sonically bold, it’s a shame two of music’s greatest storytellers don’t extend their gaze beyond their own luxe lives.”
14. On an album with beats – for the most part – as deceptive detailed as these, the contemporary “Who Gon Stop Me” is … it’s okay.
15. ”Why I Love You” sucks. This deserved its own point.
16. Since they so desperately want to be compared: neither of Run the Jewels’ albums thus far even come close.