And we’re talking about criticisms that don’t have much to do with the music.
Many commentators, artists and other writers have taken the two to task for releasing an album basking in opulence while riots are going on in the United Kingdom, bombings continue in Libya and a economic downturn threatens the world in various ways.
Dr. Boyce Watkins expressed disappointment in a column that West and Jay-Z aren’t more in tuned with issues affecting the disenfranchised communities from which they came. Chuck D hoped that the duo would use their power to educate and inform the masses instead of just entertaining them with “luxury rap” in the words of Mr. West.
This criticism is unfair for several reasons. Luxury rap has been a part of hip-hop ever since the emcee took the spotlight from the DJ as the focal point of the culture. Money talk was seen as aspirational and folks were able to relate because they had the same dreams of achieving the so-called “American Dream.” What makes this situation different is that West and Jay-Z are already rich men so any bragging is liable to sting much more when the Black community is in the middle of one of the biggest depressions in recent memory.
But the dust from which hip-hop came still produced lots of money talk and the criticism wasn’t leveled on other rappers as heavily as they are on “The Throne” (the official name of West and Jay-Z’s collaboration). Horrible things are happening in the world all the time. Why choose this time in history to pick on them? All criticism should be kept to the music.
And there’s much to criticize about the music.
It’s starts off promisingly enough, with the Frank Ocean-assisted “No Church in the Wild.” Ominous guitar noodling, kick drums and synthesizers push West and Hov to talk about the issues of monogamy, references to “blood on the coliseum floors” and money’s inability to hide pain. “Lift Off,” while promising, doesn’t really take off, but might sound good in a arena (which this album was clearly made for). The song suffers from having too many cooks in the kitchen with West, Mike Dean, Q-Tip, The Neptunes and Don Jazzy all handling production.
“Ni**a’s in Paris” works for the most part with a southern-ish bounce, but doesn’t really hit you where a beat like this is supposed to (i.e. in the gut). Sampled dialogue from the Will Ferrell film “Blades of Glory” adds to the absurdity, but West usually does absurdity well.
By the time the listener hits “Otis” and “Gotta Have It” they should feel a increasing sense of wasted potential and disappointment. It’s not that these two songs are bad. They pretty enjoyable, but these two artists are capable of better and have done better recently (West’s fantastic, critically-acclaimed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy stomps all over this album).
That’s when “New Day” comes in and reminds you of what West and Jay-Z could’ve done. Speaking to their unborn sons (which isn’t new since Tupac did it first, but is always compelling when done right), West steals the show with lines like “And I’ll never let my son have an ego/He’ll be nice to everyone wherever we go/I mean I might even make him Republican/So everybody know he love White people.”
On the RZA, West and Mike Dean-produced track, Jay-Z sheds the veneer of cockiness a bit and hopes that his son finds his life’s path before he did and promised to never leave him no matter how bad his mother is just so he won’t repeat his father’s sins. The subdued and reflective atmosphere of track, including a sample of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” is a rare moment of excellence on an album allegedly devoted to it.
The “Apache” and James Brown sampling “That’s My Bi**h” retains much of the fun of the leaked version from a few months ago and could be a hit if it weren’t for the song title (but it worked for Meredith Brooks over a decade ago so what do we know). The less said about “Welcome To The Jungle” the better. Swizz Beatz just needs to stop.
“Who Gon Stop Me” is an admirable attempt to add dubstep to American hip-hop’s repertoire, but falls flat with West and Jay-Z sounding out of place with the sample of Flux Pavilion’s “I Can’t Stop.”
But have no fear. “Murder to Excellence” is here to once again save the album with Swizz Beatz and S1 producing the track and West and Jay-Z discussing Black-on-Black crime for the first half of the record and “Black excellence” and the Black elite during the second half. It’s overall message of we have achieved much but still have so far to go is refreshing. But coupled with the “luxury rap” on many parts of the album, one can understand why the public might take a track with this message with a grain of salt.
Frank Ocean comes back into the fold with the Atari-sounding soul of “Made in America” with West and Jay-Z once again telling the story of their rise and how their position wouldn’t have been possible without the civil rights leaders and Black activists that Ocean shouts out on the hook (which includes him singing the phrase “sweet baby Jesus” with extreme earnestness).
“Why I Love You” ends the album with a sample of French-house music duo Cassius’ “I Love You So” with Mr. Hudson singing the hook. Jay-Z and West take subliminal shots at past partners and mention the little thanks they get for paying their “lawyer fees.” While the track doesn’t interpolate the sample as well as it should, it makes for a decent album closer.
With so many skippable tracks on an album over seen by West, in particular, is a surprise. His current tendency for over-the-top grandiosity never used to pull him away from making cohesive records. His five album run may be unmatched in mainstream hip-hop, but the listener would be hard pressed not to consider this outing the first true misstep of his musical career. Initially, “Watch The Throne” was going to be a five-song EP. It should’ve stayed that way.
It’s disappointing to listen to this coming off of the high that was West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” But any criticism of the album should stick with the music and not the current economic condition of the world. Having said that, much of this record is out of touch. Part of Kanye’s greatness is his ability to take the personal (no matter how ridiculous) and make it universal. Overall, he failed to accomplish that. As for Jay-Z, he has his moments on the album, but they’re also few and far between.
They may still be kings sitting on top of “The Throne,” but West and Jay-Z have to come better than this in order to preserve their kingdom.
Rating: 6.0 out of 10
Tracks to keep:
- “Murder To Excellence”
- “New Day”
- “Primetime (Bonus Track on iTunes Deluxe Version)”
Tracks to delete:
- “Welcome To The Jungle”
- “Who Gon Stop Me”