After months of delays, teases and closely guarded advance listening sessions, Watch the Throne, Kanye West and Jay-Z’s first collaborative album as the Throne, has finally gone on sale. It’s full of detailed tracks crafted by West and a small army of top hip-hop producers and dense rhymes that vacillate wildly between introspection and social consciousness – not to mention an obsession with high-end luxury goods so intense that it seems over-the-top even for a rap record. (There is some bitter irony in the fact that this record happened to arrive on the day of a major stock market collapse.) It’s still to early to fully process all of it, but here’s a rundown of what to expect.
1. “No Church in the Wild” (featuring Frank Ocean)
Odd Future singer Frank Ocean and The-Dream lend their voices to the album’s grim opener, which sets the mood with a gnarled guitar sample before jacking some sounds from James Brown’s “Don’t Tell A Lie About Me and I Won’t Tell the Truth About You.” Jay-Z has said that this is one of his favorites on the record, and it’s easy to understand why – West and 88-Keys’ track brings out the best in both emcees.
2. “Lift Off”
Beyoncé joins the boys for a synth-heavy banger that takes off like a rocket and eventually arrives at a spacey, blissful resolution. It all but demands a sci-fi music video featuring Beyoncé as a sexy astronaut.
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3. “N**gas in Paris”
Jay and Ye come in hard over a slow, menacing beat and icy synthesizer notes, but regardless, this cut is mostly memorable for including an unexpected sample of dialogue from the underrated Will Ferrell/Jon Heder ice-skating comedy Blades of Glory. “No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative,” says Ferrell with deep conviction, essentially summing up the art of hip-hop lyrics.
West transforms Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness” into slick “luxury rap.” Jay-Z and Kanye turn in strong verses, but Redding’s chopped-up shouts and hollers are the main attraction.
5. “Gotta Have It”
While some tracks on Watch the Throne give the star rappers turns at the mic, “Gotta Have It” is pure tag-team hip-hop, with the two trading off verses and finishing each other’s lines. The enthusiasm level is one of the highest on the album.
6. “New Day”
Jay and Kanye offer words of wisdom to their unborn sons over a RZA production that strays far from his usual Wu-Tang aesthetic, but complements the rapper’s introspective words with mellow, lightly psychedelic synthesizer tones.
7. “That’s My Bitch”
La Roux’s Elly Jackson sings the hook on a rumbling number that emphasizes West at his most abrasive, with him spitting out his “HAH!?” vocal tic like an irritable goose.
8. “Welcome to the Jungle”
If you were expecting this cut to sample Guns N’ Roses, much less sound anything at all like Guns N’ Roses, you’re in for a major disappointment. As a consolation, Jay-Z describes himself as the “black Axl Rose” as he spits over a jittery, treble-heavy Swizz Beatz production.
9. “Who Gon Stop Me”
“This is something like the Holocaust / millions of our people lost,” West raps over a heavy dubstep bass line, his voice processed into a sinister, tinny growl. Jay-Z holds his own, but the experimental track is more flattering to Ye’s vocal talents.
10. “Murder to Excellence”
A lot of the cuts on Watch the Throne sound like Kanye tracks featuring Jay-Z, but this one definitely comes across as more of a Jay-Z thing. The song is essentially a diptych, with Kanye ruminating on black-on-black violence in the first half and Hov delivering a “celebration of black excellence” on the more jubilant second half.
11. “Made in America”
Frank Ocean returns to sing a hook that pays tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King, Malcolm X, Betty Shabazz and, of course, the sweet baby Jesus on the album’s most serene track. Both rappers deliver sentimental verses, but Ocean carries most of the emotional weight here.
12. “Why I Love You”
West associate Mr. Hudson sings the hook on this moody track that alternates between a towering, TV on the Radio-esque chorus and hazy, synth-heavy verses.
13. “Illest Motherf**ker Alive”
From this point onward, it’s all “bonus tracks.” While it makes sense to put some space between the album proper and the extra songs, it’s curious that “Illest Motherf**ker Alive” opens with three solid minutes of silence.
The album’s first single has been downgraded to a bonus track. The bombastic Lex Luger production definitely seems a bit out of place on the record, but Kanye steps out of his comfort zone as a rapper and goes full-on aggro.
This one is about as subdued as you can get with a big boom-bap beat. The contrast between that aggression and the melodic piano sample sets the tone for some particularly conflicted lyrics from Kanye about materialism.
16. “The Joy”
The deluxe version of Watch the Throne concludes with a Pete Rock-produced track that splices together samples from Curtis Mayfield’s “The Makings of You” and Syl Johnson’s “Different Strokes” to build one of the loosest songs on the album. The rappers follow the nodding beat, but the abstracted snippets of singing, sirens, gutteral shouts and audience noise floating through the mix adds up to something entirely mesmerizing.
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