Jay-Z and Kanye West – “Watch The Throne”

Fifteen years ago hip hop was everywhere. Having got bigger and bigger over the previous couple of decades, all of a sudden it became ubiquitous, so that numerous sub-categories had to be invented to describe its ever expanding horizons, and every single other kind of genre began to incorporate it in some shape or form.

You had the largerthanlife Dre, Tupac and Snoop Dog on the West coast, and The Notorious B.I.G., Nas and Jay-Z on the East. But you also had EL-P’s Def Jux, Wu-Tang Clan and the Beastie Boys going off in their different directions, De La Soul and Jurassic 5, and A Tribe Called Quest and Blackalicious taking it somewhere else again, and DJ Shadow and RJD2 going somewhere completely different again. Then there was Eminem, and 50 Cent, etc etc etc.

The whole thing came to a head with Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below from 2003. A monster critical and commercial hit, it seemed to take all the best bits of every conceivable musical genre and filter them all through the prism of hip hop. And then just as suddenly it was all over, and over night hip hop became irrelevant. And from what remained of the dust and detritus, a lone figure emerged; Kanye West.

Okay, so that’s a slight exaggeration. The Roots are still out there and last year’s How I Got Over proved that their already expansive musical palette had got even more adventurous. Whilst that year’s Cosmagramma, the third album proper from Flying Lotus showed that hip hop was still capable of producing a genuinely exciting, not to say impressively eclectic new talent. And The Ecstatic, Mos Def’s 2009 album, is a serious piece of work. But it’s hard not to form the impression that part of the demise of hip hop has been the absence of anybody big enough to stand up to the colossal talent that is Kanye.

The one man that does seem up to the task is Jay-Z, and after working closely together on Kanye’s imperious My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (see below) last year, they’ve joined forces to produce an album proper. A number of critics have complained about Watch The Throne’s triumphalism, misreading it as a celebration of the duo’s gargantuan success. Which is to completely miss the point. You can get a taster for where they were going to go on this album by listening to two of the more withering tracks on Twisted Fantasy, Monster and So Appalled, where everything they declaim is punctuated with the refrain, “I know, this shit is fuckin’ ridiculous.”

Watch The Throne is an album from two giants who can’t quite comprehend how it is that they have been given so privileged a view from up there in the clouds, and who are continually amazed at how lonely they are there. And yet no-one is going to decry more loudly than they are their right to demand it.

Whilst not quite as layered as Twisted Fantasy, Watch The Throne is bombastic, demanding, dynamic, supremely confident and constantly questioning and, like all the best music, impossible to pin down.

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