Album titles are often throwaways: Destroyer’s Dan Bejar has admitted he just picks words to look pleasing on the sleeve. But sometimes they are laden with meaning: you didn’t need to hear Joni Mitchell’s Blue to guess the gist; Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation was the diagnosis for a decade. So when Jay-Z and Kanye West dubbed their mythical alliance Watch the Throne, they implied it would be an exercise in setting the bar.
The hype surrounding this release was by no means ex nihilo: it was fed by the gilded cover art, the pop-up store in Manhattan, the exorbitant samples, the exhaustive roster of production credits and features. Here were the two biggest MCs in the game bestowing upon us proof of their firm grip on the aforementioned throne (jointly-held though it may be).
To succeed on these terms is nigh impossible: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy managed, but it could only have been a product of West alone. Despite this, the optimists wished for something more from Watch the Throne than name-drops of Dolce and Louis; we got worse: Louboutin and Hublot. This streak of hip hop – mid-austerity no less – manages to find a level of materialistic gloating previously unknown. The most jarring disconnect comes on ‘Murder to Excellence’, a purported homage to inner-city homicide – “314 soldiers died in Iraq, 509 died in Chicago” – suddenly interrupted by Jay-Z’s debauched interlude: “It’s a celebration of black excellence, black tie, black Maybachs.”
The cynics were right of course: what else could you have possibly expected from such a team-up? Taken knowingly, Watch the Throne is a mildly enjoyable slice of boast-rap. Skipping the built-for-billboard ‘Lift Off’ (on which Beyoncé’s admittedly considerable talents are mostly wasted) and the crass braggadocio of ‘Gotta Have It’, it’s fairly solid in its own run-of-the-mill fashion. The album even occasionally impresses, with standouts like first single ‘Otis’ (that absurdly includes the late Redding in as a ‘feature’) and the surprisingly candid fatherhood worries of the RZA-produced ‘New Day’. All eyes may still be on the throne, but its gild is beginning to flake.