August 11, 2011

Kings Without a Crown

Jay-Z and Kanye West’s collaborative album as  “The Throne” will survive buoyed on the lofty expectations and reputations of the people that made it. Watch The Throne is not a good album. In fact, it’s not a halfway decent album. It’s microwaved hip-hop for an audience that expects something oven-baked. 

Unsurprisingly, the production is real swing-for-the-fences, bombastic stuff. From the triumphant horns of “Lift Off” to the skitter stop beats and violins of “Welcome To The Jungle”, there’s little room for subtlety. There’s an exception or two, notably “No Church In The Wild” It prowls, propelled by the all-star performance by Odd Future crooner Frank Ocean. There’s underlying menace in the hazy synths and fuzzy bass thumps. Yes, the album sounds huge, the performances are not.  Still, it’s remarkable to listen to a record by artists that are renowned for their wordplay, and to find so few that are memorable. So much vanishes into the ether here. There’s not one track that really has a truly great hook. 

There’s no better example than the first single, “Otis”. Kanye’s usually the master of sample re-appropriation. Here, he just abandons it completely. It’s a simple slice-and-dice of “Try A Little Tenderness” with few flourishes, leaving the rapid-fire verses between the two rappers to sound like a mixtape castoff. This off-the-cuff approach works well on rock records, but given the scope of the production on the rest of the record, it’s lazy.  

That’s alarming, considering Kanye’s track record. ‘Kanye the Artist’ is an entirely different person than ‘Kanye the Superstar’. In public, he can come off as angry and self-absorbed. In the studio, no one pays as close attention to detail and nuance as him. His productions are usually thick, densely layered compositions. There’s not that same feeling here with this material. He’s abandoned that approach to placate Jay-Z, who all too often hides behind his braggadocio and expensive beats. He hasn’t been the same rapper since his 2006 return. To ape from the sports metaphors he so often uses, he’s like late-period Griffey. A fine athlete when he’s healthy, but he’s no longer the kid with sweet swing. Given the right track, the right collaborator, and the right frame of mind, the flashes of brilliance spark, reminding listeners that the old man still has game. Not enough to last an entire season, though. 

Make no mistake, Jay-Z and Kanye West are two of the past decade’s most important artists. Jay was untouchable during his initial 1996-2003 run, and that’s before Kanye got rolling with arguably the best five-album streak of any hip-hop artist. West has always been a big picture guy, preferring to make albums over hit singles and a bunch of filler. It’s art. Jay-Z is a guy that values commerce over art. Age has shifted his viewpoint. He’ll always only have one foot in the pool. Ultimately, what Watch The Throne shows two people with major ideological differences attempting to unite with one vision – and failing.