Less than two minutes into Watch the Throne, Jay-Z has already namedropped God, priests, kings, Plato and Socrates, and put himself and Kanye on a par with Jesus and the Holy Ghost. Stick the two biggest hip-hop egos in a room together and it’s never going to be about the simple things in life. A hint – the record was hatched at the tail-end of last year, after Jay-Z’s Blueprint 3 made him another few squillion and critics lost the plot over My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Kanye’s Technicolor prog-rap masterpiece that topped lists all over, and was State’s album of 2010.
This year’s hip-hop blockbuster isn’t a sequel to Twisted Fantasy, but Kanye’s magpie touch is all over it, with a line-up of major league co-producers including RZA, Q-Tip and the Neptunes. It’s another jolt forward for commercial hip-hop, flinging everything at the wall to see what sticks; cut-up soul breaks, proggy guitar solos, rave sirens, filthy dubstep drops, Will Ferrell (!), squealing monkeys and tigers, a NASA countdown, you get the drift. ‘Lift Off’ even has Beyonce riding a wave of Rocky IV-style synths, promising to “take you to the moon, take you to the stars,” which is better than it sounds (swear).
So one-nil to Yeezy from the off, but Hova isn’t about to be upstaged by his one-time protégé – he’s charged up, coming on like a motormouth Busta Rhymes on ‘Niggas in Paris’ and on ‘Otis’ he boasts: “I guess I got my swagger back”, before declaring: “I’m ’bout to call the paparazzi on myself.”
Even with the bells and whistles all over Throne, the album’s opener ‘No Church in the Wild’ is the boldest tangent for the pair – a swirly mid-tempo synth number that marches along like a lost ’80s New Beat gem, featuring a soulful hook from Odd Future’s Frank Ocean, stepping out of Tyler’s shadow. Then Kanye proves he’s no Jesus after all, snarling: “Coke on her black skin made a stripe like a zebra, I call that jungle fever.” So there’s plenty of feral sex and drugs, but greed’s the deadliest sin on the Throne, as you’d guess from that gilded album cover the Sultan of Brunei would find vulgar. It’s never too far away from the clichéd bling tropes of Gucci, Louboutin, Rolex and Hublot, “Rollin’ in the Rolls-Royce”, or Kanye riding in his “other, other Benz”. Jay even manages to cheapen the vicious buzz-saw synth onslaught on ‘Who Gon Stop Me Now’ by bragging: “So many watches I need eight arms.” OK, it’s a good one, but Muhammad Ali was nailing lines like that 40 years ago.
Some introspection shines through. If you can get past Frank Ocean’s syrupy Boyz II Men chorus on ‘Made In America’, Jay reminisces on being a young Shawn Carter eating his grandma’s “banana pie, our piece of America”, and on ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ he admits: “I’m losing myself, I’m stuck in the moment, I look in the mirror, my only opponent.” So the lads are only human after all, although it takes Kanye longer to admit it. A good portion of Twisted Fantasy had Kanye basically admitting he’s a “douchebag” with a big mouth, and he carries this sentiment over to the RZA-produced ‘New Day’, a message to his future son: “I just want him to have an easy life, not like Yeezy life, just want him to be someone people like.” It’s not long before he’s back on his self-honed pedestal alongside his black history peers, “sweet brother Malcolm, sweet brother Martin”, which is a stretch, even for this pair. Comic bravado aside, if sweet brother Kanye and sweet brother Jay-Z can knock out an album like this in their spare time, clinking Cristal glasses and high-fiving each other, their hip-hop Throne is safe for now.