Watching The Throne: notes from the first listen

I just paid $14.99 for an album on iTunes. I don’t think I have ever bought an album on iTunes and I have never paid $14.99 for digital music.  The fact that I charged something more than a $0.99 iPhone game to my iTunes account is a testament to the marketing skills and ‘leak lock-down’ put into Kanye West and Jay-Z‘s collaborative project.  Watch the Throne (Deluxe Version) has 16 songs and a run-time of just over an hour.  I am about to hit play and record my initial responses here.  But before we get to that, I think full disclosure is necessary.  I am an unapologetic Kanye West fan and I believe history will be on his side.  I also believe Jay-Z is THE most overrated rapper of all time.   This doesn’t mean I believe Jay-Z sucks, I like a lot of his stuff — I just don’t believe he lives up to the hype.

OK, with that out of the way, let’s see if this album was worth $14.99.

No Church in the Wild (feat. Frank Ocean) – Starts out right with Frank Ocean (big fan) ‘what’s a mob to a king, what’s a king to a god, what’s a god to a non-believer‘  Jay-Z takes the lead with a history lesson of sorts before turning it into a drug/kingpin verse.  Jay comes strong over the simple ‘hard’ beat — I’m feelin’ this.  The-Dream introduces Kanye and Kanye comes insane like always ‘coke on her black skin make a stripe like a zebra, I call that jungle fever‘.  The whole song stays on a mellow level — the beat rolling along while both emcees get warmed up.  This one will be good to bump in the car/truck/jeep/etc.

Lift Off (feat. Beyoncé) – Opens with Beyoncé taking us to the stars — the star being Kanye ‘I’m such a show-off!’.  Electronics coming at you from all angles as they ‘take it to the moon, take it to the stars…lift off!‘  Kayne goes to the auto-tune — ‘you should know me by now’ before Jay joins his boo with a ‘limp dick‘?  Ok, might have heard that wrong.  This track is all Beyoncé and Kanye though.  The music is all over the place like an outtake from MDTBF.  Jay’s verse was forgettable.  This one will do well in the club.

Niggas in Paris – Was that Will Ferrell?  ‘we’re gonna skate to one song and one song only’ Pretty sure that’s from Blades of Glory.  Jay-Z is coming hard, ballin’ on about muthafuckas like Jordan, Jackson and Tyson.  Kanye comes across as more ‘court jester’ than king on this track — ‘Prince William didn’t do it right, shoulda married Kate & Ashley‘  Will Ferrell comes back in trying to make sense of Kanye’s lyrics after an extra long rant ‘no one knows what it means but it’s provocative!‘.  This track might grow on me, but on first listen Jay owns this one and it is not my favorite.

Otis (feat. Otis Redding) – This was the first single, I believe.  Otis starts it out ‘you won’t be ready, no no, sweet, sweet, sweet love‘  Jay-Z  ‘sounds sweet…‘  ‘I invented swag‘ — I got this, I got that, I’m the shit.  Kanye going ‘dumb again‘ — got lots of cars and diamonds and all that stuff.  Jay is followed by paparazzi.  OK, this is a song about how great they both are.  They are so cool they smoke Cubans with Castro.  Otis sounds like he’s stuck in the background, just trying to get his voice heard through the bullshit.  Solid track despite the unoriginal rhymes.  I doubt Otis would approve, but this is the first track where Jay and Kanye stand on equal ground.

Gotta Have It – OK, the flow from Otis has followed through to Gotta Have It.  Not the most listenable track but with Kanye and Jay finishing each other’s sentences, this is one of the best tracks from a lyrical standpoint. Just not crazy about the beat.

New Day – A semi-serious song to their future sons produced by RZA.  Kanye starts it off and you can tell he’s serious even when he’s saying ‘I’ll never let my son have an ego — might even let him be Republican so everybody know he loves white people’  This is a slow burner and I’m really liking it.  Trumpets come in as the next king warns his prince ‘I already ruined ya, not even born and paparazzi pursuin’ ya’  The Nina Simone sample works really well.  This probably won’t be a single, but one of my favorites so far.

That’s My Bitch – Taking it to the gutter, Kanye sounds a little like Slick Rick here and I do love the line about how ‘Too Short called and said I fell in love with her‘ and the sample from Incredible Bongo Band (which I had to look up) does a great job of giving the song a little humanity.  Not my favorite, but might grow on me.

Welcome to the Jungle – ‘I asked her where she wanna be when she 25 — looked at me and said alive‘ A hip-hop city tale in the vein of the Guns ‘N Roses song.  ‘Black Axl Rose – come down to the jungle, just ask for Hov‘  Could have been a better song without the irritating ‘welcome to the jungle, welcome to the jungle‘ from Swizz Beatz.

Who Gon Stop Me – Another bravado contest, but this one works really well.  Clever rhymes, stadium beats — this could be the theme song for this whole album. Oh wait, just got weird.  Beats getting a little out of control around the 2 min mark.  Now I just picture the two of them lost in the club, wearing glow paint and rollin’ on Molly.  The rhymes are still strong, but what the fuck is up with the Empire of the Sun shit going on in the background?  I wish someone would have stopped them on this track!

Murder to Excellence – A study in black-on-black homicide — even Kanye puts the jokes aside for this We’re All In The Same Gang anthem.  Comparing stats from Iraq to Chicago.  This is where Jay-Z shines, but Kanye is holding up well under the weight of the subject matter.  About half way through it turns into a ‘celebration of black excellence‘ — the whole feel of the song changes, now it’s the flip-side?  A track about black success vs. violence? Murder to Excellence.  Interesting, but feels like two songs.

Made in America (feat Frank Ocean) – ‘Sweet baby Jesus, we made it in America‘  Frank Ocean should be on every song!  Kanye goes first, telling his story — how he made it in America.  This is a rap ballad.  I’m a sucker for these types of tracks — adding this to my playlist now — just hope Jay doesn’t fuck it up.  Nope, he’s coming tight as well.  I just hope this doesn’t turn into a dubstep track 3 mins in.  No Burial yet, but Frank Ocean is back talking about the sweetness. Maybe this should be their theme song — how they got to The Throne.  I can’t wait until they win the Grammy and thank ‘sweet baby Jesus‘, I hope Will Ferrell is there.

Why I Love You (feat. Mr Hudson) – The biggest song on the album.  Cassius’s I Love You So is the base of this club banger.  ‘I taught them how to be kings, but all they wanted to be was soldiers‘  Kanye coming real again, but Jay might have upstaged him here.  ‘Showed love to you niggas, but you ripped out my heart and stepped on it’  Strong verses from each, but even better when they share the mic.  This track achieved the true potential of this match-up — kinda ends weird though, like that episode of Sopranos.  Did one of them just get shot?  Oh well, fade to black…

The deluxe version has a few more tracks, but we’ll leave those to the true review.  Overall first impression is that this is a strong album, but I don’t think it is in the same league as either artist’s strongest work.