By the time Jay-Z emerged from his fortress of solitude in 2006 to favor his subjects with Kingdom Come, his world had become so tidy and hermetic that there was really only room left in it for him. It was as if he’d accomplished his life goals and couldn’t decide whether to take a victory lap or a victory nap. It took the meteoric ascent of a protégé named Kanye West to rouse him from his apathy. From The Blueprint on, West’s career in some ways represents an ongoing conversation with a hero turned mentor turned rival. On “Big Brother,” West opened up about their relationship with a sincerity that bordered on embarrassing. But his albums and mix-tapes are filled with references, direct and indirect, to Jay-Z.
Now, Jay-Z and Kanye consummate their long, fruitful musical relationship with the collaborative album Watch The Throne. As always, the men are a study in contrasts: the businessman and the bohemian, the faithful husband and the drugged-up playboy, the walking press release and the loose cannon. Jay-Z is tidy. Kanye is nothing but rough edges. On Watch The Throne, exhilarating messiness and go-for-broke spontaneity infect Jay-Z and push him outside his comfort zone and into a realm of intense emotional reflection.
The first two singles from the project encapsulate the album’s dominant musical tones. There’s the icy electronic emptiness of “H•a•m,” an exercise in technical virtuosity for its own sake that thankfully did not make the album. And there’s “Otis,” a throwback to the hyper-soul, sample-heavy sound of The Blueprint and The College Dropout, featuring Jay-Z and Kanye friskily tag-teaming a “Try A Little Tenderness” sample. Otis Redding didn’t just provide the sample, he also provided the song’s title, a fitting tribute in an album that posits Kanye and Jay-Z’s success as a fulfillment the civil-rights movement and soul music. Otis is invoked, and so are Fred Hampton, Nina Simone, Martin Luther King, and other icons who died before they could admire the duo’s homes and cars.
“New Day” recaptures the gritty autobiographical introspection of The Blueprint and College Dropout, as Kanye and Jay-Z take turns addressing future sons about the gift and the curse of massive fame. Jay’s fatherlessness lends the song an additional element of pathos; even on The Blueprint, Jay-Z’s soul-searching rarely cut so deep. Watch The Throne was crafted in the heat and intensity of a very specific cultural moment, but Kanye and especially Jay-Z have the long view in mind. The album has the flash to dazzle and the substance to last.