Jay-Z and Kanye West always had musical chemistry. There are some who might even suggest that Ye’s soulful flips helped reinvent the Jigga Man’s sound. Revealed in its formative stages on The Roc La Familia the Scarface-assisted “This Can’t Be Life,” a young Kanye West had yet to fully integrate himself into Jay’s trusted inner circle. At least, not until the following year. On The Blueprint, a project considered by many to be among the greatest hip-hop albums of all time, Kanye West held it down with four contributions – including the incendiary “Takeover,” which single-handedly turned a simmering Nas feud into a full-blown massacre.
Aside from putting Nasir Jones in check, Ye’s Blueprint placements served an additional purpose. Prior to Kanye’s soulful flips on artists like The Doors, Michael Jackson, and David Ruffin, Jay generally opted for a different musical aesthetic. The production on his previous projects, particularly Hard Knock Life and Life & Times Of Shawn Carter, was generally skewing toward crisp and punchy minimalism. The trend was carried forward on songs like Dynasty’s “Change The Game” and “Squeeze 1st,” prompting speculation that the Jigga-Man had settled on his stylistic preference. With the tandem of Kanye West and Just Blaze at the helm, Jay left listeners stunned on Blueprint, mirroring his production’s mature and authoritative qualities.
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In many ways, the work done on Jay’s Blueprint, Blueprint 2, and Black Album played a role in setting expectations. When Watch The Throne was initially announced in 2010, many used the aforementioned three as a point of reference. By this point, Kanye West’s own artistic evolution had reached an arguable peak; coming off My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Ye’s production had evolved from his sample-based formative years. His process changed in tandem, opening the door for collaboration with other likeminded creatives. As a result, Ye found himself rapping over beats that might have sent a purist fleeing. And while Jay and Kanye’s signature sound was beginning to develop a nostalgic aura, the remnants of their glory days remained a major selling point for The Throne’s potential. Yet when it arrived, there was hardly a soul sample to be found.
“No Church In The Wild” opened the project on a darker note, a slow-burning and tense guitar-based instrumental. Arguably the album’s definitive song, the track was successful in dismantling preconceived expectations. Neither Jay nor Ye was to be operating within the confines of their respective comfort zones, but rather cultivating a mutually beneficial (and stadium-friendly) sound. Nowhere was that more evident than on Hit-Boy’s “N***as In Paris,” which found Jay and Kanye teaming up for their most playful collaboration ever. At once lavish and outlandish, a flex you’d normally envy if it weren’t so charming, “In Paris” was instantly iconic to a wide spectrum of audiences. The glory days were indeed acknowledged on “Otis,” which featured Kanye’s beloved sample-manipulation and vintage mixing. While perhaps not as lyrically refined as he once was, Jay-Z still managed to label himself “the inventor of swag” with a respectable degree of authenticity, outrapping over half the competition with little to no effort.
In hindsight, Watch The Throne’s singles tend to operate the most mental real estate. Still, it’s some of the deeper cuts that stand triumphant. The Swizz Beatz & S1 produced “Murder To Excellence” stands alongside Jay and Ye’s finest hours, with the latter turning in an album-best performance. Masterfully weaving between somber and triumphant at the instrumental’s behest, Ye’s ideologies and unapologetic nature coalesce with one of his most inspired verses. “If you picture events like a black tie, what the last thing you expect to see? Black guys!” raps Ye. “What’s the life expectancy for black guys? the system’s working effectively, that’s why.” The rare socially conscious-flex, pulled off by a man who many would claim tactless. Looks can be deceiving. As far as Jay’s best, it’s tempting to eye another Swizzy contribution in “Welcome To The Jungle.” Off the bat, Swizz’s unconventional percussion and steady cries of “Goddamit!” are evocative of Jay’s favored late 90’s production, songs like “Money Cash Hoes” and “Do It Again;” is it fair to say that Watch The Throne’s return to synthesizers and a digital aestheticbrought Jay full circle? Spurred on by his own frustration, Jay bodies the set, spitting powerful lines in his concluding statement: “Where the fuck is the press? Where the fuck is the Pres?, Either they know or don’t care, I’m fucking depressed, no crying in public, just lying to judges, risking my life, I’m already dying, so fuck it.”
Is Watch The Throne the crowning achievement in the respective discographies of Hov and Ye? No. But it remains a strong installment nonetheless, and one that has aged gracefully into classic status. The spectacle alone -“N***as In Paris” was played nine times in a row during their subsequent tour- makes this one inherently monumental. There’s also something running deeper on Watch The Throne. A palpable air of fun, of two friends and longtime collaborators, both of whom can look back on truly legendary discographies, operating in a creative space entirely free of pressure. On the album’s eighth birthday, during an era where a sequel would be more than appreciated, allow yourself a moment to enjoy WatchThe Throne.