Our Rap Flashback a week ago made mention of “H.A.M.”, the lead single from Watch the Throne, dropping last January, spawning interesting conversation and critique of probably the biggest hip-hop album of 2011. Many of our posts here at Life of the Lime will be spent pondering and pontificating on this great musical genre called hip-hop; the JPL team are all passionate fans and believe in furthering the conversation about and within hip-hop music. I was reading an article on hiphopsite.com which listed WTT among its 10 Most Disappointing Albums of 2011. The site is known for smart critique and solid insight and yet this site also listed WTT among its 10 Best Albums of 2011. I won’t reprise the entire article but the thought that both of these things are possible, that an album can be both one of the best of the year as well one of the most disappointing is interesting, perplexing and true. The overall reception of the album, at least in my own personal circles, is definitely one of disappointment. Myself, I think the album is pretty damn good. So for today’s post, let’s take Jay and Ye’s advice and Watch the Throne to figure out why we want to hate on it so much.
Let’s get something out of the way at the outset: Is WTT what we all expected when the joint album was announced two years ago? No. Is it even, really, Watch the Throne, whatever that title should mean? No, not really. Getting those two issues out of the way, I think, moves us past the majority of the album’s criticism. What is WTT? A solid hip-hop album, from two of rap’s greats with a good level of collaboration and chemistry, an uncommon level of experimentation, recorded in a rockstar fashion (taking over part of a Paris hotel to record the album smells strongly of the Rolling Stones) with a number of really good tracks. I think that last part is something we each forget when we start a conversation about the album.
“Yeah, it’s ok,” we foolishly begin, “but the only really good tracks are ‘No Church in the Wild’, ‘Murder to Excellence’ and ‘New Day’”.
“… Y’know, obviously other than ‘Otis’ and ‘N*ggas in Paris,’” we add, “… oh, and ‘Gotta Have It’ is kinda my jam right now,” we continue.
“And I guess I did sleep on ‘Who Gon Stop Me’ and ‘Why I Love You’…”
And so on…
“H.A.M.” needs no extra analysis – it banged in all our gym workouts, and what seemed like the most ridiculous-sounding term crept right into our everyday speech.
“N*ggas in Paris” is overplayed by this point but let’s be real, it’s awesome. Awesome track, awesome sample, lyrics we all know and a story that harkens a bit to “Smoke on the Water”*. (*”Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple details the adventure of recording the song, which “…Paris” also does to an extent.)
Then there’s the production of the album, also the subject of much critique. The feel of the album, beginning immediately with ‘No Church…’, seems a continuation of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, with the same deep, dense, orchestral foundation and its dramatic, at times almost morose undertones. There were reports of arguments between the two superstars, with the direction of the album being retooled multiple times and little of the original material making the final cut. The dichotomy between Jay-Z and Kanye is often the most glaring characteristic of the album, with two different and equally engaging perspectives on their place at the top, “luxury rap” if you will. Music critic Nathan Rabin labels Jay-Z and West “a study in contrasts: the businessman and the bohemian, the faithful husband and the drugged-up playboy, the walking press release and the loose cannon. Jay-Z is tidy. Kanye is nothing but rough edges.”
Robert Christgau puts it this way: “One could venture that maybe Watch the Throne divvies up the way it does for rhetorical purposes—that one king plays the hero and the other the hedonist, two equally royal hip-hop archetypes.” For me, it is in this unspoken comparison that the album finds its greatest strength.
With all these artistic positives, it’s somewhat difficult to understand the almost instinctual disappointment that we feel toward Watch the Throne. I think we as hip-hop fans have come to expect so much from our “heroes” because such a large portion of the rest of the genre is boring and homogeneous. And to me it really begs the question, what do we, as hip-hop fans, actually want? Do we really just want something from T-Pain, Rick Ross or Drake, something we can memorize on first listen, bump loudly in the club and in our cars, and then hate three months later because we’ve heard it entirely too much? Are we, as a whole, a music-listening virus, seeking only too consume and thus requiring a shallow level of entertainment? If so, the Empire is already lost. But I am more optimistic than that. I think, in reality, most of us like Watch the Throne and there are some of us (such as yours truly) who think highly of it. It’s just surprised us, it wasn’t what we expected and that right there is what we actually want out of our hip-hop artists.