Imagine Hercules and Zues making an album, then God and Jesus mastering it…that’s the outcome of Watch The Throne. #MadFuckingAmazing
— DAVID AMAYA (@AmayaNYC) August 2, 2011
As far as runs go, Kanye Omar West’s run from the release of his debut work, The College Dropout culminating in 2011’s Watch The Throne was a Lionel Messi esque barn storming one resulting in a chip over the goalie. Brilliant and audacious in equal measure. West had dealt with rejection, first from industry executives when trying to make the transition from Producer to Rapper and then, the universe post “Taylor, Imma let you finish”. The loss of his mother and breakdown of his engagement helped fuel the triumph of possibly his most innovative record, 808s & Heartbreak and the tragedy of the aforementioned Taylor Swift incident. The collaborative album with GOAT rapper and strategist, Shawn Corey Carter marked the full circle moment. The idol became the rival. Then the rival became the tag teammate. After finding a creative rhythm that had been rare since West became a superstar in his own right, in the build up to Blueprint 3 ( Run this Town was the moment Kanye shed his little brother skin) the announcement that an EP would follow was met partially by disbelief and the type of outsized expectations that come with two of the top 5 rappers of the last decade coming together to piece a body of work.
It’s January 2011. The Arab Spring is about to start . The body of the legendary Nigerian defender, Uche Okafor has just been found. The story is he’s committed suicide. The first single off Watch the Throne, H.A.M drops and the response is lukewarm. The duo who’d ordinarily be described as trend setters were playing catch up in following the orchestral style instrumentation of Lex Luger, the trendy Producer of the time. By all accounts, that response inspired a back to the drawing board moment. Kanye’s background as a Producer saw him retain creative control while Jay Z was liberated to focus on his lyrical content which explains his outshining West on the record. (Well, if we’re excluding the fact that he’s a better rapper.) What followed was an album that sought to please. Instead of honing in on one theme or style, the album was built on diverse leanings reflecting the restless nature of West’s mind. Kanye’s soul sampling genius was put to good use on New Day (where he sampled Nina Simone and ran it through auto tune just for the hell of it), Primetime and Otis, the Otis Redding sampled cut that saw the two trade boasts and send subliminal shots the way of Drizzy Drake and Consequence. Jay who’s normally coy in his lyricism, was open and introspective on Why I Love You while his performance on the dub steppin’ Who Gon Stop Me is one of his strongest in recent times. Race was also a strong theme- Jay put in a good word for our Nubian Queens rapping “Why all the pretty icons always all white?/ Put some colored girls in the MoMA”. To reference the vaunted company in the spaces he was seeking to occupy “Only spot a few blacks the higher I go/What’s up to Will, shout-out to O.” Kanye? “We like the promised land of the O.G.’s/In the past if you picture events like a black tie/What’s the last thing you expect to see? Black guys.” There was also a strand of social commentary as exemplified best on Murder To Excellence where they discussed the spate of black on black crime. There were also the “luxury raps”- what Elias Isquith refers to as the “transformation of hip-hop from the self-styled soundtrack of the streets to the soundtrack of today’s bourgeoisie”. Its diversification perhaps, the only way the gargantuan demands could be met.
Looking back at its release, Watch the Throne was one of the most stage managed albums of the social media/internet leak era. Recorded in some of the finest cities of the world, the songs were kept on hard drives and an iTunes first release was put in place to ensure by the time it went to the press, it was already out for public consumption. This was before the days of Mr. Carter fronting a streaming platform and Mr. West tweeting “My album will never be on Apple”. Very few of the songs were in public circulation. Otis, the lead single was premiered memorably on Hot 97 by Funkmaster Flex. One of the key legacies of Watch the Throne was the manner in which it allowed us to receive music in a way we were not really used to. The morning of its release was a peak mono cultural moment in the midst of the fragmentation of our interests. My way of receiving the album was to get off social media in the build up to its release- I wasn’t into buying music digitally then. I had pre-ordered the CD so when it came a couple of days later, I set up the stereo system and let it blast round the flat while I did some housework. I recall losing my mind upon hearing the madness that was Niggas in Paris. In retaining control of the album and its rollout, there was an onus on the listener to delve into it to figure out the sense of direction. Such releases have been rare since then.
It’s also worth looking at the album as marking a point in the way we have viewed its protagonists since then. Watching the Otis video and their performance at the VMA’s, it’s suggestible that both have not been as happy in the public eye as they were and that with the transition they were about to embark on, it was the perfect album at the perfect time. Mr. West was yet to evolve fully to the polymath that he now is and deal with the exposure that came with dating then starting a family with Kim Kardashian. The change in his mood is best captured by the fieriness of 2013’s Yeezus which he has described as a musical sit in. While The Life of Pablo is clearly a sunnier record, there’s a palpable feeling that he’s dialling it in. He has nothing to prove so the laser focus and detail from the Old Kanye era is missing. To underline this, the last record on which he bore sole production credit was Otis. Mr. Carter on the other hand was on the second peak of his post The Black Album career. His daughter, Blue Ivy was born during the tour and his attention was yet to be commanded by commercial interests like Made in America, Tidal, Roc Nation’s management arm and Dusse.
In hindsight, it’s fair to say that Watch the Throne aged well. It’s forgotten now that upon its release the reaction was mixed. There were accusations of tone deafness. The imagery of the decimated Maybach in the Otis video at the height of a period of economic distress partially inspired this. Lift Off fell flat and betrayed the credibility of the cast behind it. Back to the expectations point, less than 10 months earlier, West had dropped My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy– his most ambitious body of work and one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the last decade. It was unfair and unrealistic to expect him to improve upon that. In dropping one extraordinarily great album and another great album, West led the Grammy nominations that year but failed to get one for the Album of the Year gong that he has coveted all his career.
For me, the abiding memory of Watch the Throne was the tour. I was lucky to go twice in a couple of days and regard it as the best concert experience ever. West’s highly theatrical sense of stagemanship did not align with Jay’s more traditional sensibilities so some of the polarizing but now pronounced elements of his set up were checked in at the door. Jay has supreme confidence and this is reflected in his highly controlled but laidback style. Kanye on the other hand is an only child whose desire for attention comes through in his more emotional disposition. Being Kanye’s first tour since 2008’s Glow in the Dark, there was an awkwardness that saw him leaning on Jay’s effortless delivery and charisma. In effect, despite his wanting us to think otherwise he was still playing the little brother role. That said, their use of the infectious Niggas in Paris to close the show was brilliant. In choosing to perform it multiple times, it functioned as the money move that created an event out of an event. Jay Z got it right when he closed out saying “I’m sorry if this is your first concert. It’s all downhill from here.” He told no lie.