Westworld: Two kings crowd ‘Throne’

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Braden Hajer, Copy Editor & Columnist

TL;DR

Jay-Z’s performances are definitely better than on previous Kanye West projects, and there are some absolute hits here, but 2011’s collaboration of two of rap’s titans, “Watch The Throne,” is hindered significantly by terrible structural, conceptual and occasionally musical decisions. Tracks 5-10 range from boring to seriously annoying, plaguing the full listening experience with lackluster song after lackluster song. The final track is simply garbage, certainly as a mere song but especially as a conclusion. Had “Made In America” been the ending track, “Watch The Throne” could very well have broken out of C range and forced the creation of a B- level on my tier list, probably dragging “Graduation” down with it as well. This one decision legitimately cripples the entire album, though it’s obviously far from the only flaw.

Rating: C

Favorite Tracks: “Ni**as in Paris,” “Otis,” “Made In America”

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We’re breaking new ground here on Westworld: “Watch The Throne” is the first Kanye West album billed as a full collaboration I’m going to be discussing in this series. With his co-billing, Jay-Z is indeed pivotal to the entire project.

Before we get to this 2011 album, though, I need to make one thing perfectly clear: in the context of the Kanye West discography up to this point, I don’t believe that Jay-Z has ever elevated a single song he’s ever been on. I think he’s softballed hard on every single track, all the way back to “Never Let Me Down” on West’s debut. I’ve never been impressed or even entertained by a full verse from him before “Watch The Throne.”

I specifically want to look at his two appearances on “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” as that’s the album that directly precedes this one. “Watch The Throne” is definitely an improvement over all previous Jay-Z features. He has a number of killer verses which I’ll of course highlight on a track-by-track basis, but there are plenty of tracks that have verses where I listen to them and have the reaction of not caring at all about what he’s saying.

Now, to the the album at hand. The opening track, “No Church In The Wild,” is polarizing for me. On the one hand, I love the beat. From the thumping kick and fast bassline to the subtle, syncopated chord beats, it sets a unique and engaging Western atmosphere for the track. I’m also a big fan of Frank Ocean’s vocal performance on the chorus. On the other hand, the song is crippled by several terrible decisions. It almost feels like there was a miscommunication between Jay-Z and Kanye West as to how to approach this song lyrically. Jay-Z’s verse is abstract and philosophical. The opening lines especially build up an image for the rest of the song…

     “Tears on the mausoleum floor

     Blood stains the coliseum doors

     Lies on the lips of a priest

     Thanksgiving disguised as a feast”

Meanwhile, West’s verse is the exact opposite; it’s explicit in every sense and fundamentally sexual. It’s also much less interesting, but frankly that’s besides the point, as I don’t exactly adore Jay-Z’s verse either.

So where does this leave us? While Jay-Z took the title of the song and the thematic instrumental as an opportunity, Kanye seemed to have used it as an excuse. This dichotomy is not fun or intriguing: it’s confusing and nonsensical. The use of monkey sounds in the outro to the track is a similarly confusing choice, given that the song’s ambience is… Western? Monkeys, shockingly, are not native to the American frontier. It’s distracting and communicates a distinct lack of vision to the overall track.

Most frustrating of all is the very end. It’s a fantastic, eerie and intriguing instrumental using an acoustic guitar and woodwinds. It leaves you in complete anticipation and wonder as to where it goes. And what does it lead into? Absolutely nothing. The next song is completely unrelated. Now, that would maybe be excusable, except this same outro is used on three separate tracks across the record, and it never leads to anything. No bars are ever dropped over it, no song is built on it… It just happens three separate times, completely unrelated to each other, and is never spoken of ever again.

I admittedly do enjoy the song overall, but it’s decisions like those above that weigh this record down so heavily.

I’m glossing over the next track, “Lift Off.” Put simply, I adore the instrumental. It’s bursting with energy and goes through a variety of different variations throughout the track, all of which are fantastic. Beyonce’s hook goes over it beautifully, creating a song with enough momentum to bounce off the walls, while Kanye and Jay-Z ruin the track with everything they do. Jay-Z’s miniscule verse in particular could have been out-written and out-performed by a middle schooler.

Next comes two all-star highlights of the Kanye West discography: “Ni**as In Paris” and “Otis.”

“Ni**as In Paris” is legendary…by far the most headbang-worthy track of Kanye’s entire career. Frankly, I don’t think it even warrants discussion. You and I both know it absolutely slaps. 

The opening line from Jay-Z sells the whole song:

     “Ball so hard motherf*ckers wanna fine me

     First n*ggas gotta find me

     What’s 50 grand to a motherf*cker like me

     Can you please remind me?”

Jay-Z’s “ball so hard” anaphora throughout the track was a stroke of brilliance. The phrase alone elevates the song from merely a banger to an anthem. Similarly incredible is Kanye West’s “don’t let me get in my zone” repetition in the latter third. Layered on the more relaxed, choral instrumentation, the song becomes uniquely inspiring.

Less iconic but somehow even more breathtaking is “Otis.” It’s become one of my most-played Kanye songs by far. The vocal sampling on this track is some of the most genius I’ve ever heard, creating a raw (and super catchy) sound that’s begging for bars to be spit. Luckily, “Otis” has, no contest, the hottest bars of ANY Kanye West song. It’s line after line of pure lyrical mastery. I’ll list two of my favorites below, but the lyricism throughout this track is simply sublime.

     “Damn Yeezy and Hov

     Where the hell you been?

     Ni**as talkin’ real reckless, stuntmen”

 

     “Photoshoot fresh, looking like wealth

     I’m ‘bout to call the Paparazzi on myself”

Kanye West makes certain choices in his performance throughout this song that are phenomenal but difficult to verbalize. Similarly, it’s difficult to explain why this song is top five in Kanye’s catalogue to someone who hasn’t listened to it, but hold no doubt that it is.

It’s after this point that this album, for the most part, completely loses me. I’ll take you on a quick trip through the next six tracks.

“Gotta Have It”: The beat is far too repetitive and borderline-annoying. It has one interesting line in it, that being the very beginning, where Kanye says: “Hello, White America, assassinate my character/Money matrimony, yeah, they tryna break the marriage up.”

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Graphic by Braden Hajer

“New Day”: The sloshy vocal sample and almost-rhythmic brass lead to a nearly-nauseating listening experience. Once again, Kanye says one interesting line at the start, that being (in reference to his son) “I might even make ‘em be Republican so everybody know he love white people.”

“That’s My Bitch”: Extremely boring. I amuse myself through it by performing “Hollaback Girl” by Gwen Stefani over it. They’re basically the same song, but Stefani does it way better. 

“Welcome To The Jungle”: A less-aggressive (and interesting) version of “Yonkers” by Tyler, the Creator. There’s one point in the song where if Jay-Z had just cut off his verse at the line “Where the f*ck is the sun?” this song would actually be godlike, but apparently he’s a coward.

“Who Gon Stop Me”: It would have been better as an instrumental. There’s all sorts of great musical ideas, and I enjoy listening to them, but then I remember that people have been rapping this entire time and I completely tuned them out.

“Murder to Excellence”: By this point all of these songs have been so boring that I can barely pay attention anymore. This song’s got a much more defined vision and unique instrumental, but it isn’t enough to rope me back into this album.

After a 21-minute slog, the sun finally rises with “Made In America.” This track really just puts a smile on my face. The warm pads, Frank Ocean’s tender vocals, the gleaming piano, the soft drums and the accenting violins create a nostalgic and purely happy listening experience. The reminiscing lyrics from both West and Jay-Z are perfect for the song and create the perfect conclusion to the album, nice and optimistic but not bland.

But, incredulously, the album doesn’t end there. Instead, we’re “treated” to “Why I Love You,” an overproduced, messy, annoying and generally repulsive song. It’s easily one of the worst Kanye West songs of all time and by far the worst conclusion to any Kanye West record, leaving a legitimately bad taste in my mouth. The decision to make this the concluding track instead of “Made In America” is the worst musical decision Kanye West has ever made (including “Jesus Is King”).

It’s baffling decisions like this that make this album so generally unpleasant. I like, to varying degrees, five of the 12 tracks on “Watch The Throne,” more, it turns out, than on the higher-rated “Graduation.” Yet I enjoy the project on the whole considerably less.

I’ll see you soon for my review of “Good Music, Cruel Summer.” Don’t forget to share your thoughts about “Watch the Throne” on Twitter. You can find me @bhajerCT or @centraltimes. Use the hashtag #KanyeWestworld to discuss.

Happy listening!

Audio and video clips contain explicit content and are property of Rock-a-Fella Records, 2011.