Watching the throne may be harmful to your eyes. The long-awaited, wildly hyped joint effort by Jay-Z and Kanye West has arrived at last, and it gives off a gilded glare – both from the actual cover (the deluxe CD edition, designed by Givenchy Creative Director Riccardo Tisci, comes wrapped in embossed gold Mylar) and from Jay and Kanye's lyrics: an onslaught of Rollses and Maybachs and Gulfstream jets, five-star hotels and Audemars Piguet watches. As Kanye puts it in the surging "Otis," this is "luxury rap."
Which is not to say bling rap: Jay and 'Ye (who've taken to calling themselves the Throne) may be obsessed with their own king-size lives, but the tone here is serious, sober, weighty – more "American Dreamin'" than "Big Pimpin'," more "Can't Tell Me Nothing" than "Touch the Sky." 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.
It has a sound to match those grand pretensions. The production – spearheaded by West, with contributions by the Neptunes, Swizz Beatz, RZA and more – is vast, dark and booming. In songs like "Why I Love You," Kanye continues in the sonic vein he introduced in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, lacing the songs with rock dynamics, layering his beats with eerie vocal chorales, piling on proggy flourishes.
Jay and Kanye bellow over the clamor, invoking sovereigns (Jesus and Caesar, Elvis and "the leader of the Jackson 5"), boasting and gloating. The punch lines come fast and furious. Jay-Z: "In sheepskin coats, I silence the lamb." Kanye: "I adopted these niggas, Phillip Drummond them/Now I'm 'bout to make 'em tuck they whole summer in." In "Illest Motherfucker Alive," Jay-Z compares himself to the Beatles – and calls Beyoncé his Yoko Ono. In "Who Gon Stop Me," Kanye cops to being racist. Why? "I only like green faces."
Jay is in particularly fine form: He's as sharp as he has been in a decade, and he shows flashes of the emotional depth that is West's calling card. In "New Day," Jay lays bare the pain of his fatherless childhood; in "Murder to Excellence" (with a turbulent beat by Swizz Beatz and S1), he places his success in a wider sociopolitical frame: "Only spot a few blacks the higher I go/What's up to Will/Shout-out to O/That ain't enough/We gon' need a million more/Kick in the door."
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.
Listen to "Otis":