Kanye West and Jay-Z go beyond the bling

The hip-hop artists' collaboration not only entertains, it has something to say.

November 12, 2010 / Abu Dhabi / (Rich-Joseph Facun / The National) Kanye West (CQ), performs live at Yas Island, Friday, November 12, 2010 in Abu Dhabi.
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Watch the Throne
Jay-Z and Kanye West
Def Jam

The egos have landed.

Since the much-anticipated announcement of a collaborative album between the hip-hop heavy weights Jay-Z and Kanye West, the rumour mill has been in overdrive over which star guest will be appearing, which producers hired and whether one studio would be big enough to fit both personalities.

When it comes to Jay-Z, any doubts lingering in people's minds may be warranted. The rapper may still be smarting from his last hip-hop collaboration effort with R-Kelly a decade ago. The two albums produced were not only mediocre, but the disastrous American tour that followed had echoes of This Is Spinal Tap, with R-Kelly banned from a Madison Square Garden gig and his subsequent multimillion law suit against Jay-Z.

As for "Yeezy", he has always been a one-man show. His albums may contain plenty of guest appearances, but he is the one leading the charge and his influence is widespread - from the direction of the sound production right down to the CD artwork.

Upon closer inspection, though, one realises this collaboration makes sense after all.

With both artists at the top of their games, it seems they only have each other to urge further creativity. Perhaps this could be the reason behind the album title: both artists are on a mission to raise the bar even higher.

In that regard, however, they may have partly failed, as Watch the Throne doesn't offer the sonic surprises associated with their solo recordings. Instead, the album is a fine slice of immaculately produced, commercial hip-hop.

The opener Church in the Wild begins on a surprising note, with both rappers waxing lyrical about philosophy and existentialism.

"Socrates asked whose bias do y'all seek?/All for Plato, screech", Jay-Z says in the album's opening verse.

Not to be outdone, West's following verse brings the concept down to street level: "It's something that the pastor don't preach/It's something that a teacher can't teach/ When we die the money we can't keep/ But we probably spend it all cause the pain ain't cheap."

The follow-up, Lift Off, is bombastic in every way. With euphoric synths similar to what's found in West's Flashing Lights, both rappers trade lines about galaxies before a big chorus sung by Beyoncé.

The first big album track is Otis. Ironically, it is one of the best, as it sees West going back to his old production tricks.

Similar to Gold Digger, West builds a soulful beat over Otis Redding's Try a Little Tenderness. However, while Gold Digger is a fun romp, Otis is more steady, as both rappers speak of the pressures of the luxury life. West also delivers one of his best lines here with: "Luxury rap, the Hermès of verses/Sophisticated ignorance, write my curses in cursive."

But the album is not all about the joy of being kings. The album's middle section finds the duo becoming more introspective as they look at the ramifications of fame.

In New Day, both rappers speak hypothetically on how they would raise their yet-to-be-born boys.

Jay-Z predicts his son would be cursed by the paparazzi, while West, using his trademark acerbic wit, aims to sign up his son with the Republican Party, to stem the controversy over his comments regarding President Bush: "I'll never let my son have an ego/He'll be nice to everyone, wherever we go/I might even make him be Republican/So everybody know he love white people."

Both fans of classic hip-hop, Jay-Z and West take an old-school approach to their joint delivery. Both rappers are not interested in battling; instead, they give ample space for each as they trade delivery either by verse or as in the brilliantly groovy Got What You Need (produced by the Neptunes) line by line.

The whole affair seems balanced at every point, with both performers viewing themselves as equal and allowing the subject to dictate their performance.

This is best illustrated in the album's grandest statement, Murder to Excellence, a powerful ode addressing gun violence among African-American communities.

It is tracks like this that prove mainstream hip-hop, despite its love for all things bling, can still have something incisive to say.