Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Jay-Z & Kanye Watch the Throne: [Hasty] Album Review

For years (decades even) rap artists have been hard at work pushing the genre’s musical envelope in new directions in hopes of adding on to what can sometimes [rightfully] be perceived as a somewhat stagnant art form.

Despite an ever-diversifying array of Hiphop producers who are seemingly eager to break up the monotony of mainstream rap by incorporating new sounds and styles into their music, it has been the rappers for the most part who are reluctant to test the unfamiliar waters of nontraditional Hiphop production, opting instead for the safety of formulaic 16-bar verses and a hook.

But today’s release of Watch the Throne, the highly anticipated collaboration album from Jay-Z and Kanye West, more than crushes the above stereotype of the lazy rapper and the producer(s) who enables him or her.

More specifically, Jay-Z, the flawless lyricist and revered elder statesman of rap, and Kanye West, the boastful wordsmith and accomplished beat-making producer who is known for bending the rules when it comes to rap, have created as close to a genre-busting masterpiece as we have seen in quite a while.

With all the talk from critics and fans alike issuing hollow ultimatums such as “this album better be worth the wait and the hype,” a few listens to this album quickly quells those apprehensions. Simply put, the album is very good, well above average and neither rapper disappoints, to say the least. Classic status will be determined in time, but for now, this album rocks. Period.

Of course the lyrics and rhymes are amazing, but what really steals the show is the album’s production value, which is being widely referred to as experimental.

In truth the album’s production is clearly inspired by a number of musical genres, including drum n bass, dub 
step and rock, but still manages to remain all the way Hiphop.

Again, this is not a new phenomenon in rap. However, it is an uncharted course for renowned, platinum-plus mainstream rappers to take, with most fearing the loss of their core audiences unless they deliver something comparable to their past work.

But Jay and Kanye are not most rappers, and if that wasn’t clear before this album, it becomes more and more evident song after song.

There are some issues that I personally have taken with the album; namely, the few instances of Autotune usage, something I thought Jay would never be associated with after officiating its verbal funeral on his single from two years.

I also have taken umbrage with the song Otis, which uses the same portion of the Otis Redding sample that RZA used seven long years ago for Masta Killa’s song DTD. The facts that RZA was involved in this album and Kanye used this sample on this album are not a coincidence. It’s also a pretty lazy name for a song that lyrically has nothing to do with Otis Redding.

However, aside from those few, minor gripes, the album is a refreshing dose of forward-thinking, progressive Hiphop music that showcases Jay and Ye at their collective lyrical apex.

On New Day, before trading verses with Kanye about their unborn children, Jay promptly announces “me and the RZA connect,” a reference to the song’s producer; the fact that this the first time on wax that Jay rhymes on a RZA beat; and, of course, Raekwon’s rhyme from Incarcerated Scarfaces when he utters those same five words. (This is the first time Jay has broached the topic of having children since Amil’s 4 Da Fam song more than a decade ago when he proclaimed he was “about to have a child,” something that either has or hasn’t happened depending on whom you believe.)

Lift Off is a synth heavy, off-kilter beat with Beyonce’s strong vocals on the hook, featuring Jay and Ye rhyming about their ascent to the top of the world. Jay’s flair for wordplay is on display big time here, likening himself to a racecar legend over one of those aforementioned experimental beats:  “when you earn hard as me officially you hit a big wall.”

Murder to Excellence is an upbeat track with tribal chant-sounding vocals looped through the two-part song, which is an overall condemnation on black on black violence. Kanye finally asks “is this genocide?” after blacking out on the beat:
I’m from the murder capital where they murder for capital
Heard about at least three killings this afternoon
Looking at the news like ‘damn, I was just with him after school’
In shop class, but half the school got a tool
And a ‘I could die any day’ type attitude
Plus his little brother got shot repping his avenue
It’s time for us to stop and redefine black power
41 souls murdered in 50 hours.
Jay, on his second verse, lamenting about the lack of black faces he encounters with his continued success, takes the concept even further: "If you put crabs in a barrel to ensure your survival/ you gon’ end up pulling down niggas who look just like you.” This is by far the most powerful song on the album, complete with insightful lyrics, a hard beat and a unique concept.

Why I Love You is a lyrical dedication from each rapper to his respective detractors (a/k/a haters), a timely track considering all the recent shots being taken at both Kanye and Jay. Jay breaks it down for those who refuse to show him respect:
I tried to teach niggas how to be kings and all they ever wanted to be was soldiers
So the love is gone, still blood is strong, we no longer wear the same uniform
Fuck you squares, the circle got smaller
The castle got bigger, the walls got taller
And truth be told after all that’s said
Niggas still got love for ya. 
The feel of the track is borderline rock music and definitely alternative in nature, a downbeat song with electric guitars and strings.

Primetime, a banging, piano-laced track produced by No I.D., features Jay rhyming about how he’s still in his prime, but Kanye takes a different route, flipping the usage of the word “prime” to mesh with how he sees himself:  Primetime, baskin in the lime/ Cassius in his prime/ coloring out of the lines/ ‘cause they don’t want nobody that’s colored out of the line/ so I’m late as a muthafucka, colored people’s time/ Damn Yeezy, they all gotta be dimes?/ Well Adam gave up a rib so mine better be prime.”

Some loyal listeners might get turned off by the sometimes alternative approach to the album’s production, but it’s just Jay and Ye’s way of providing examples of different directions Hiphop needs to go in order for growth to take place. The only problem with that message is that for years it’s fallen on deaf ears because the message is usually delivered from the underground. Maybe it will take high profile rap artists endorsing this type of music for it to be accepted and used on a wide scale. Just like the classic status many people want to immediately bestow on this album, only time will tell.

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