Watch the Throne Turns 5

On August 8, 2016

by Paul Thompson 


We celebrate Jay-Z and Kanye's Watch the Throne, an album pilloried on release for "celebrating wealth" during a recession. That criticism largely missed the point of the album. It turns 5 today.  

“The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.” -- Karl Marx

“If you escaped what I escaped, you’d be in Paris getting fucked up, too.” -- Jay Z

On August 6, 2011, for the first time in its 151-year history, Standard & Poor’s downgraded the United States’ credit rating from AAA to AA+. The unprecedented move-- which followed Congressional votes to raise the debt ceiling and the Japanese government’s manipulation of the yen-- led to a global panic. Markets across all five continents plummeted, bringing to a halt the delicate recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, itself the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Watch the Throne was released two days later. It was recorded in fits and starts at sprawling estates in Australia and England; at state-of-the-art studio facilities in Honolulu; in Paris and in Los Angeles; in the South of France and in Abu Dhabi; at Electric Lady, at the Mercer, at the Tribeca Grand.

By the end of 2010, Kanye West was the most distinctly American kind of hero. He’d refashioned his mom’s record collection into Benzes, backpacks, plaques, taunted the President, made an electro-R&B album, been exiled from the country for stealing a fake trophy from a white woman, started wearing only suits, started wearing only red leather and gold, been an intern, and put out his masterpiece. Who will survive in America?

When Watch the Throne came out, I was thinking about Amy Winehouse. My aunt had been in an accident outside of Palm Springs, put on life support for a time, and taken off. My dad and brother flew to Winnipeg from D.C., my mom and aunt’s family from the desert. Amy died at some point during the whole ordeal; I don’t quite remember but it caught all the grief I’d been repressing from the other one. I was living in Minneapolis. I drove my mom’s Highlander to Winnipeg alone, listening to Frank and “Otis.” At the border, I switched passports and talked my way into the Nexus line. Not bad, huh? For some immigrants.  

Nobody liked “HAM” when it came out, but they should have: it’s weird and confounding and exciting and wildly funny. In Jay’s verse, it’s even profound. He gave trap choirs and gave Lex Luger publishing; he ends a phrase in his verse “By the way, nigga, you should fucking quit, nigga.” (Jay has the “Baby money” passage and “When my nephew died, daddy dead/ Nigga took a price on my uncle’s head/ Nobody called the cops while my uncle bled/ So I feel like I would like to know my uncle’s bread.”) The Latin at the end more or less means, “Long live the king.”

Flex ran “Otis” back for forty days and forty nights, and expectations balanced out, the cynicism had some soul to keep it occupied.

When the digital version of Watch the Throne was unlocked, miraculously leak-free, I was shaving, because someone had mentioned that my uncle, the widower, was offended I showed up with stubble. I have no idea if that was true. I took the Highlander and drove East on Portage, down over the Moray Street bridge, through Charleswood and Roblin Park.

“No Church in the Wild” made Frank Ocean a star. “Sunglasses and Advil” was the pull quote from Night One, but Jay’s verse reversed nearly everything that was wrong with Blueprint 3. His voice bends and snaps (“All. White. Like. I Got. the whole thiiiing bleached). He sounds at home.

“Lift Off” wastes a superb outro. On “Who Gon Stop Me,” Jay says that he’ll “show up in all white wearing no socks” as if “HOW’S THE KING OF NEW YORK ROCKING SANDALS WITH JEANS? OPEN-TOED SANDALS WITH CHANCLETAS WITH JEANS ON? HOW’S THE KING OF NEW YORK ROCKING SANDALS WITH JEANS AND HE 42 YEARS OLD?” never happened. Mr. Hudson should go back to playing the bachelor on Unreal. An A&R or a team of interns should have been hired to keep dubstep off the album.

But what else? Those few dips aside, Watch the Throne is full of beautifully paced, economic songs for summer and summer hangovers. Gold cover aside, it’s not really yacht rap, but it’s most of the way fishing boat rap. That run from “Niggas in Paris” into “Otis” into “Gotta Have It” is one of the most lethal combinations I can think of from this decade.

I can’t tell you why Pusha T passed on the “Paris” beat, or why Kanye loves Will Ferrell so much. But I was at two of those shows from the WTT tour, and I can tell you that it sounded as infectious and insane and totally unhinged on listen twenty-one as it did on listen one. “Gold bottles, scold models” is the leanest distillation of Jay’s pop star persona; Kanye’s laugh after he says “I’m in France” is like a tiny, afterthought of a victory lap after the greatest fifteen-month stretch of his life.

Yasiin Bey did his sociopolitically engaged version of the song, and he said “What the fuck is Margiela?” which was maybe a good question at the time. But the original “Paris” was the response to clean water crises and going bankrupt because you got cancer. So was “Otis.”

No I.D., has given interviews where he more or less disowns Watch the Throne. He didn’t like the direction Jay and Kanye were taking. He was basically in step with the rest of the country; when it came out, everyone called the album “opulent” and said look at the cover and it’s a god damn recession, show a little respect.

The massive critical failure in 2011 was casting Watch the Throne as an album by rich guys about being rich. It’s not; it’s about being black in America and it’s about the isolating nature of fame. When those two intersect (“Paris,” “The Joy,” “Murder to Excellence”) this ranks with the best work either artist has done.

The record’s not so complicated that it’s a Rorschach test, where we get out of it what we look for with each year’s lens. It was all there the first time: On “Welcome to the Jungle” alone, Jay says “I’m a tortured soul, I live in disguise”; “Mama look at your son--what happened to my smile?”; and “Where the fuck is the press? Where the fuck is the Pres?/ Either they know or don’t care, I’m fucking depressed.” On “New Day,” after Kanye says he might make his son be a Republican so white people accept him, he raps, “I just want him to be someone people like.”

There can also be a frenzied sort of joy to those discussions. Jay’s verse on “That’s My Bitch” is his elevator pitch for black women’s beauty; Kanye’s “Oh shit, it’s just blacks on blacks on blacks” from “Gotta Have It” is ecstatic.


It’s been noted that Kanye seemed to be the creative force behind most of these songs, but the most telling moment was when he was the restrained one. “Murder to Excellence” has some of Jay’s best writing since his retirement (The “I arrived on the day Fred Hampton died” passage in particular), but it’s Kanye who slides in, calm and composed, to keep things on track and on message. He reads murder stats, he calls for action. Jay, the center of the rap universe for more than a decade, is free to alter his game and play to his remaining strengths. It’s what the optimists think Jordan did with the Wizards.

When the smoke cleared, No I.D. had actually produced one song for the record--sort of. “Primetime” was a bonus, a beautifully formless cut where Jay raps about drinking Ciroc to put money in Diddy’s portfolio and Kanye tells a girlfriend to float in the bathtub until he gets home. But it’s canon, because the bonus songs (“HAM” and “The Joy” included, plus the comically grandiose “Illest Motherfucker Alive”) are four of the strongest on the project.

I remember very little about my aunt’s funeral. I remember almost nothing about listening to Watch the Throne on August 8, just that I did in fact listen to it and that I was driving all over the West side of Winnipeg when I did. And maybe that makes me eager to connect dots the way the financial hawks do. But there’s a tremendous feeling of loss in the record. It details the unravelings of marriages and the hollowness of capitalist success. If it also celebrates the trappings of both, well, that’s the American thing to do.

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