Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch the Throne: A First Listen
Have we been waiting for this? Who knows -- even big fans of Jay-Z and Yeezy know they never shut up for too long. Big-budget collab albums we know aren't Jay-Z's strong suit (Unfinished Business? Collision Course?). And judging by the awful "H*A*M" (now a bonus cut) and the mesmerizing "Otis," Watch the Throne could go anywhere. I'm gonna liveblog my first listen and see.
"No Church in the Wild"
Frank Ocean's consolation prize for a great year of songs he can't sell (Google his excellent Tumblr-dropped Nostalgia, ULTRA. mixtape if you value your year-end list) is kicking off this greatest-of-the-greatest pairing and also serving as its quality control badge. Jigga and Yeezy had the taste to whittle the guest list down to Beyoncé, two dead soul geniuses, and this kid. And do he does, kicking "What's a king to a god? What's a god to a nonbeliever" over the same four-kick thump that propelled his hit "Novacane." Jay rhymes large, with a lot of space and even some riddles ("Thanksgiving disguised as a feast"?). Almost makes it two minutes without Auto-Tune. Kanye insists on sounding like a creepy boyfriend per his 2011 usual.
Hey, the royal orchestration is more complex and mazelike than it is tall and glowering, proving the overblown pre-album single "H*A*M" a fluke -- good thing. Beyoncé sounds ebullient; subterranean bass and snare rolls have a smoky quality that Jay and Kanye can't seem to find their way around. In fact, they're barely on here. It's also sort of barely a song. Somehow "Runaway" didn't feel like Kanye was developing prog tendencies despite its nine-minute length because it stayed within the same blocky four chords. I like this, though; it could get weird.
"Niggas in Paris"
Weird little outros ("No Church" had some funereal horns) and big gaps between rapping, with lots of musical things whooshing hither and yon, this album's looking like easily the artiest thing Jay-Z has ever put his name on. This song crabwalks while Kanye makes fun-bad puns about Mary-Kate and Ashley and stops himself with a film sample about how stupid the jokes are. It's 67 minutes, but I could well love this thing. "I'm definitely in my zone" say the two I's in unison.
The more this album unravels (there's no other word for it), the more I love what it's doing, how it fits into Ye's discography (it's a jarring sidestep for Jay's, not a bad thing either), following up his Big Tortured Masterpiece with a big, weird, even humble pastiche musically from two guys who are otherwise using it as vehicle to brag about smoking cubanas with Castro. Big prize goes to "I've got five passports/I'm never going to jail."
"Gotta Have It"
And it just keeps going! Swirling, addictive hook on this beat, someone's hum turned into a Middle Eastern riff. "Ain't that like LeBron James?" asks Kanye quizzically. How many guys this popular are so obsessed with being hated? Next thing he'll compare himself to Hitler -- oh, wait.
Spatial Auto-Tune decor, squeedling synth drops. "I'll make him be Republican/So everybody know he love white people," is Kanye's hilarious idea of fatherly promise. "I'll never ever let him hit a strip club," and (wasn't a whole album about your ex enough?) "I'll never let his mother move to L.A." Sounds like Jay-Z is chanting "me and the RZA connect" in the background -- it's about time. Jay talking about his dad leaving again is the only thing more predictable than Kanye talking about his L.A. casualty ex. But this is inoffensive, unless you count that absurd Republican bit.
"That's My Bitch"
The title, oh goodie. This is "My Chick Bad" with a lot of buzzing crap and a sample from Public Enemy's "Brothers Gonna Work It Out" over the "Apache" bongos. I can't tell if Kanye's bitching about buying a girl breasts or offering to. He does that a lot, huh? I also can't tell if his (frequent) jokes are (less frequently) funny. Jay-Z hasn't been very quotable yet, much like this half of his career, but that doesn't make him bad. He sounds good in the mix, an old boxer's grace in his flow.