Album: Jay-Z & Kanye West, Watch the Throne (Mercury)
Sunday 14 August 2011
News that the two undisputed heavyweights of hip-hop were planning to collaborate on an album smacked of some dreadful finance-first Hollywood franchise tie-up.
And the album sounds exactly like what it is: a record made during snatches of downtime in the two titans' busy schedules, largely in hotel rooms across the planet, from Bath to Abu Dhabi.
The first words from either of them are Jay-Z's "Tears on the mausoleum floor/Blood stains the coliseum doors". It hints at a dark, "gothic" mood – but it's explored only intermittently thereafter. The title Watch The Throne is about fear of being usurped, and paranoia in various forms runs throughout the album ("Hello hello hello white America, assassinate my character," begins Kanye on one track, getting his retaliation in first).
Beyoncé trills prettily on the future-funk of "Lift Off", one of numerous celeb cameos: "Gotta Have It" features the Neptunes on autopilot, while the fluttering cumulonimbus of "New Day" is one of the RZA's least typical productions. Of the Big Two, West, in particular, is on lyrical form intermittently, venting something that's clearly been bugging him since his American Academy of Art days with "Mona Lisa can't fade her/I mean Marilyn Monroe, she's quite nice/But why all the pretty icons always all-white?/Put some colored girls in the MOMA..."
Then there's the brilliantly absurd "Illest Motherfucker Alive", on which he boasts "Bulletproof condom when I'm in these hoes/Got staples on my dick. Why? Fuckin' centrefolds." Jay-Z doesn't hold back with the bragging either, claiming to be "better at 42 than at 24" and anointing himself the "Black Axl Rose", though why he'd want to be that is anyone's guess.
The nadir arrives with "Otis", on which Redding's estate has inexplicably given Jay and Kanye permission to do to "Try A Little Tenderness" what Buffalo Bill does to his victims in The Silence Of The Lambs: kill it and re-stitch it into some sort of hideous cloak.
They do, occasionally, have a point. "Who Gon Stop Me" begins with Kanye comparing black-on-black murder to a Holocaust, only for Jay to ruin it all with ridiculous rhymes such as "Like a hare/Like a rabbit/I like karats/I'm allergic to having bunny ears". "Murder To Excellence" develops the idea more thoroughly, but even that degenerates into Jay-Z boasting of being part of a new black elite.
In place of politics, or any kind of point, all this album offers is a parade of premium brands, from Grey Goose to Louboutin. The overriding sensation is akin to reading one of those luxury-shopping magazines you get on planes while a mediocre hip-hop station plays over the headphones.
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