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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