After the listening session for Watch The Throne, Jay-Z stood up and revealed to the assembled crowd that he and Kanye had recorded, and scrapped, an earlier version of their much-hyped, long-rumored collaborative rap album. “We had made this very big, impressive album, but I’m not sure if it was all that enjoyable,” he said. So they returned to the studio, he continued, to render it more human. As a result of their diligent efforts, Watch the Throne boasts the following down-to-earth touches: a gold-plated album cover designed by French fashion plate Riccardo Tisci; snatches of recorded NASA launch-code transmissions; a sample of Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness,” which probably could have bought a private jet or five; lyrics about physically balancing on stacks of money; and, oh, they kept the folksy title Watch the Throne.
Despite their best efforts, in other words, Watch the Throne remains what it was destined to be from the start: a massive, unapproachably haughty thing, the most ostentatiously over-the-top pop album in a year that included Lady Gaga’s Born This Way. As he did on 2010′s conspicuous-consumption-nightmare masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye piles on jaw-dropping, gorgeous sounds here like so many flung bearskin rugs: Bon Iver, La Roux, Otis Redding, Nina Simone, the “Apache” drum break, a crushing dubstep sample; all his current favorite accouterments are here. There’s also an Eastern European gypsy folk song reappearing in between songs, because, hey, why the hell not? The resulting room feels almost suffocated by the purchased luxury.
Conveniently, “suffocated by purchased luxury” is the overweening lyrical preoccupation of WTT. Material boasts are so high-concept that they take on a melancholy air; Jay-Z’s Audemars Piguet watch isn’t just decked out in diamonds, it’s “losing time/ hidden behind all these big rocks.” Kanye doesn’t just collect luxury cars; he owns “Maybachs on ‘bachs on ‘bachs on ‘bachs” (the “on backs” homonym can’t be coincidental). In “Welcome to the Jungle,” Jay-Z actually stares in a mirror and sighs, “I’m fuckin’ depressed.”
That slackness of soul is the most maddening and intriguing aspect of Watch The Throne. Ever since The Black Album‘s grand retirement party and his unofficial ascension into the highest ranks of American celebrity, Jay-Z has seemed, on record at least, like a man increasingly uncomfortable in his own expensive suit. In public appearances, he has perfected the art of regal maturity, but in the booth, he has often sounded queasy and lost, snarling with a savagery that feels unearned and lashing out semi-impotently at air. On Watch the Throne, he actually sounds lonely and lost, making it one of his most oddly compelling performances, if a bit heartbreaking. Kanye, by contrast, shows up on the album chopping up coke on naked black models and traffic-directing his own threesome.
Both of them, in other words, are lost in the depths of their own void, which makes this a particularly dark and somber “collaboration.” Ye and Jay trade bars, even finish each other’s lines, but the impression is of two brooding monarchs sleepwalking side-by-side through their own private nightmares, hardly aware of each other. “Sorry junior, I already ruined ya,” Jay-Z rhymes to his unborn son on “New Day.” Next to him, Ye moans that he hopes his child will be “somebody that people like.” They are like Maybachs passing in the night.