I firmly believe that, as multifaceted as his enormous talents are, there’s a very strong possibility that Kanye West is the greatest of all time in the realm of hip hop. He’s responsible for three of the greatest rap albums of the last 10 years, ( The College Droppout, Late Registration, and his magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), and he’s contributed his bombastic production style to countless other artists as well. Jay-Z may not be the king of hip-hop that he once was but there’s no denying The Blueprint‘s place in the rap pantheon. Most of Yeezy and Jigga’s collaborations in the past have led to instant classics like “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” or “Monster”, so when I heard that they were working together to create a full-lengthed album, I was understandably incredibly excited. Kanye’s the heir apparent to experimental and artistically ambitious hip-hop, and once upon a time, Jay-Z was the master of laying down hard hitting beats and rhymes. Unfortunately, the final product, the recently released Watch the Throne doesn’t quite live up to its high expectations and is a generally uneven production that showcases ‘Ye’s unparalleled production skills but also reminds us that Jay-Z’s best days are far behind him.

Whereas My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was an unprecedented fusion of hard-core hip hop, Michael Jackson-esque pop sensibilities, indie rock, and electronica that currently represents the artistic high-water mark of hip-hop since The Low End Theory, Watch the Throne is a far more conventional and unambitious undertaking. While you still get flashes of ‘Ye’s unrestrained sense of production, splitting main creative control between him and Jay-Z leads to an unreconciled conflict between their quite difference styles. Jay-Z hasn’t changed as an artist since they first worked together on The Blueprint whereas The College Dropout couldn’t be more different than MBDTF. For the most part, Jigga is content to dish out rhyming one-liners to whatever beats that Kanye and his team of co-producers were willing to lay down while Yeezy is still out there with his storytelling/introspective approach to hip-hop lyricism. The bridge between the ambitions and talents of Kanye and Jay-Z is so insurmountable (in ‘Ye’s favor) that it just makes Jay-Z’s parts seem so weak in comparison.And, as I’ll get to in a second, while there are several great tracks on this album (and one instant classic), the album never fully becomes a cohesive product and the quality is generally all over the place.

First and foremost, “Otis” is the best thing Jigga’s done since “99 Problems” and it ranks pretty high in ‘Ye’s singles list. It sounds like something that happened to be left off of The Blueprint for some dumb reason and then they remembered how awesome it sounded. It took so much chutzpah to center an entire song around “Try a Little Tenderness”. It’s one of the greatest songs of all time and the ego that ‘Ye and Jay-Z had to use it is unmatched but also awesome. The other big single is “H*A*M” which is arguably the catchiest track on the album but its main choruses are fairly weak. Although once again, the production value is simply through the roof. “Lift Off” which features Beyonce is this album’s “All of the Lights”. It has pitch-perfect pop sensibilities and the use of synthesizers is well done. I hated “That’s My Bitch.” It’s very offensive and misogynistic. Although, I’m also torn because it’s one of the better produced songs on the album. If you don’t think Kanye is the best rapper-producer out there, you’re crazy. “Who Gon Stop Me” is another song that instantly takes me back to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with its heavily electronic feel and “Runaway”-esque use of vocoder. “Ni**as in Paris” was Yeezy at his worst kind of excessive materialism. Normally, his inherent hedonism is beautifully set-off by his scathing introspection, but here’s he’s just boasting of his success and wealth and both he and Jigga fail to effect me.

I hardly found myself enjoying Jay-Z’s rhymes on this album. While there were moments, like on “Otis” or “Murder to Excellence” where he made a return to form, I felt his performance was fairly phoned in. Just to be sure, I went back and re-listened to The Blueprint where nearly every track is a classic and he rocks every second he’s on the mic, and it only confirmed my opinion of a weak performance here for Jigga. ‘Ye is still great, but he suffers from his biggest flaw that with the exception of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he has trouble making consistently great albums. He’ll have moments of pure brilliance on every album, but then drag those albums down with bloated productions with songs that needed cut. It’s the same problem on Watch the Throne. While his ability to lay down sonic and simultaneously soulful background beats is unmatched, he doesn’t quite know where to cut the fat. I would have probably enjoyed this all a lot more sans Jay-Z, but that’s part of the deal here. If you’re a fan of either, you should definitely listen to the album, just set your expectations at a reasonable level.

Final Score: B

 

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