'Watch the Throne': Catchy, Gaudy and 'Chillingly Out of Touch'
Critics weigh in on the Jay-Z-Kanye West collaboration
Between the incongruity of holding intimate "listening parties" in places like the American Museum of Natural History's Hayden Planetarium, a web-first release strategy that prevented leaks and alienated brick-and-mortar retailers, and reports of creative strife that seem both manufactured and totally plausible, it's worth remembering that Kanye West and Jay-Z's actually got together and made a record. Watch the Throne is a super-group collaboration, but it better also be super.
It is, writes the Washington Post's Chris Richards. "It’s also a relief," he adds. "Those expecting a disastrous ego clash will have to wait for Congress to reconvene — or until Jay-Z and West hit the road together this autumn. Here, the duo volley between the contemplative and the petulant...Rebellion is consistently tempered with gluttony — the two dissonant spirits that make this country great."
The New Yorker's Reeves Wiedeman points out the partnership isn't exactly equal. On the whole, he writes, the album is "[p]retty good, after two listens...[but] Jay-Z gives the whole endeavor more forward momentum. Sasha Frere-Jones wrote of West that 'he makes the most of his and his collaborators’ talents,' and he’s done that here." Which is a nice way of saying, he stays out of the way.
But what does it mean? The songs, writes The Wrap's Chris Willman, capture the "on-going sense of sonic brilliance" that both men have built their careers on. Which sounds like an asset, but is actually a problem, argues the Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot, since if the hooks are catchy it just makes the void at the center of the project all the more noticeable. "In many ways," Kot observes, "it’s an album about mutual admiration," the uneasy pairing of "artists have developed distinct, not necessarily complementary personas."
At Time, Claire Suddath offers a valid counterargument: the album is about "two men grappling with what it means to be successful and black in a nation that still thinks of them as second class." But they've explored similar territory in their solo work. In his Grantland review, Hua Hsu makes the most compelling argument of all about what's been lost by Kanye West and Jay-Z teaming up. It's the ethos of camaraderie and collaboration that drove the project--the desire to be part of a team, two working as one--that prevents it from clicking. Writes Hsu:
Instead of competition, we now live in a culture that produces mutually beneficial agreements. Instead of rivals there are dream teams, talents taken around the globe in the name of common goals, brand visions, the quid pro quo backslap culture of "liking" and retweeting. Instead of a guy emerging from a bench-clearing brawl with his arm dislocated, we have the Miami Heat and their "Big Three."
By most accounts, this is a far preferable way to live. But it doesn't necessarily make for more interesting art.
He also calls the album "chillingly out of touch," a damning piece of criticism that raises all the questions musicians don't like to hear about authenticity, the "real" world, and whether they've changed. The gaudy packaging (right) of the deluxe edition doesn't help. As Time notes, it is "made from gold mylar [that] unfolds into a cross and is embossed with images by Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci." This is a questionable decision, not only because of the state of the global economy, but because nobody buying Watch the Throne is only doing it for the gold mylar wrapping with the Givenchy logos. They want a great hip-hop album, and they don't quite get it. What they get, according to Hsu, is a piece of art from "two artists who no longer need dreams."