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Jay Z and Kanye West: Watch the Throne
Of all the dream-team collaborations we
could hope to see, a Jay Z and Kanye West partnership was never too far; the
last decade has been a tease. Now, probably the two most influential rappers
alive have linked arms to form the aptly named duo ‘The Throne’ and taken a plunge
that is as much an artistic risk as it is a massive money-spinner.
Watch the Throne is a mish-mash of sounds that never strays too far from either one’s repertoire. While this is Jay Z’s fourth album collaboration, never has Kanye West had to share so much of the attention.
Frank Ocean’s smooth vocals open the album on ‘No Church in the Wild’. It’s not the gala start that you’d expect, but more of a simmering twitch; the base guitar loop excites and promises something special.
For better and for worse (but more for worse) Beyonce takes the edge off of ‘Lift Off’; a track that would be more suited on one of her own albums. ‘N*ggas in Paris’ can’t come fast enough, and Jay Z comes into his own on this track. The song is actually the perfect illustration of the two different styles in unison; Jay Z’s sharp incisive raps and West’s nonchalant punch lines.
‘Otis’, named so because of the use of an Otis Redding sample, is as grand as a first single should be, but sounds generic in equal measure. The Neptunes-produced ‘Gotta Have It’ is regrettably only two-and-a-half minutes long; the two artists’ seamless back-and-forth raps are a highlight. Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA imparts his production and wisdom on ‘New Day,’ as both rappers grant advice to their unborn seeds on a sombre piano-driven track.
‘That’s My B*itch’ has Q-Tip’s fingerprints all over it and is quintessential, nonsensical Kanye genius; one that will make you move. It’s an obvious choice for a second single, and Swizz Beats completes the hat-trick of guest producers on ‘Welcome to the Jungle’.
Fast forward to ‘Murder in Excellence’, where the duo’s writing peaks, as they address an increasing nonchalance of gun culture, drive-bys, et al: 'I feel the pain in my city wherever I go/ 340 soldiers died in Iraq/ 509 died in Chicago.'
Frank Ocean pops up again in ‘Made in America’, and British r&b virtuoso Mr. Hudson lends his skills to ‘Why I Love You’.
There’s plenty to keep any music fan entertained on Watch the Throne, but there isn’t enough of a range to make it a classic, and in turn, although both men share the limelight equally, neither is able to execute at his best. It’s as if both are too conscious of the other.
Album opener ‘San Angeles’ will get feet moving and booties shaking, but the rest of the album is decidedly more post-rock oriented. The influences of Pink Floyd only really make a grand appearance on psychedelic tune ‘Lunar Drift’, with its spooky synths and echoing bass line.
‘The Eliminator’ takes the listener back to the eighties again, as the repetitive electronic beat that is used sounds a lot like the 8-bit sounds that were the backdrop for many early eighties video games. Imagine the aforementioned desert wasteland turning 8-bit coloured.
The eighties also dominate in the strummed intro to ‘Martin Rev’, evoking memories of Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’. You’d almost think the guys of Maserati had wished they were making music a few decades ago.
With no prior announcements of its making, save for a short film named “Jungle” released a few hours before it became publicly available, If You’re Reading This it’s Too Late was first released on iTunes Store, Spotify and Soundcloud, and quickly received acclaim – impressive sales figures followe.
So what’s the deal with this mixtape/album hybrid that boasts a massive 17-track track list? As a whole, it shows lyrical maturity on Drake’s side, as well as quite remarkable production. As is his usual, the Canadian singer’s fourth album blends the worlds of velvety smooth r&b and modern hip-hop.
The latter emerges in spirit on the album’s opener. ‘Legend’, in which Drizzy announces, “If I Die, I’m a Legend.” He continues on “No Tellin’”, warning “Please do not speak to me like I'm that Drake from four years ago/ I’m at a higher level.”
It’s a theme that runs through much of the album, with his often ridiculed but much loved romantic (hyper-) sensitivity offer taking a backseat somewhat. His position as a target of more hate that he probably should get drives him to unapologetically state, “I’ve got enemies//Got a lot of enemies,” over the eerie, monotonic piano chords in ‘Energy’.
Despite drifting into self-actualisation on ‘Know Yourself’, the Young Money prodigy still doesn’t go to the emotional depths fans have become accustomed to, rapping “I've always been me, I guess I know myself” and “I want that Ferrari, then I swerve” in one same breath.
With several guest collaborators appearing on the album, one of the highlights is ‘Star67’ featuring Lil Wayne; a song that sees Drake go full-on confessional, rapping about his struggle to financially support his mother, making it in the fickle industry and going from rags to riches.
He explores these subjects further on “You and the 6” – a track seemingly inspired by and dedicated to his mother: “She worry 'bout me from home//You know she raised me alone.” It’s on this song that he most harks back to what can only be described as his unique selling point – rather than gimmick – of breaking the urban music mould with a relative and digestible sense of sincerity.
Though many will argue that If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late presents little other than the familiar introspectiveness of Drake, it does go some way to prove that his musings aren’t exclusively affective in the context of chart-friendly, commercial radio. With excellent production values and a noticeably increasing lyrical maturity, this is possibly his best work to date; an album-come-mixtape that stands tall in a sea of hip-hop bravado.