Jay-Z and Kanye West are not like us mere mortals. These are celestial bodies, ones who can sample seminal Otis Redding tracks (“Try a Little Tenderness”) and not worry for a second about clearance. Hell, Hova isn’t even worried about cops anymore, bragging “I got five passports, I’m never going to jail” on “Otis,” the latest peek at the two rap titans’ forthcoming collaborative album Watch The Throne. And Kanye isn’t even worried about hell, bragging that “Jesus Walks” saves him.
It would likely be an odd position for virtually anyone—speaking from the throne, removed by years and floors from the struggle of the uphill phases of life—and it’s even odder for these two unqualified successes. Jay-Z hustled a long time ago and his legendary “I’m a business, man“ line (from another collaboration with Kanye, natch) is two wars ago; Kanye has as strong a string of five albums to start his career as any rapper, and he’s still got room to grow. They now face one of the upper class’s convenient quandaries: How can they to make things relevant to the average Joe or Joanne when their lives are spent in different realms?
These two kings typically talk to the common man with dripping condescension. The founding document of the Throne mentality is likely their piss-take from Jay’s The Blueprint 3, “Hate,” which had Kanye rapping laser noises over his own laser synths and Jay sarcastically telling haters he breathed them like “ai-yer.” “Otis” is stylistically more like a hybrid of two other non-Throne Jay/’Ye collabs, “Run This Town” and “The Joy”: take the deliberately gauche tack of rapping over a beloved soul sample from the latter and mix it with the pablum about being beyond it all of the former and you have the DNA for a bloodless track about bloodless, businesslike reign.
Fortunately, Jay-Z remains one of the cleverer rappers breathing, and his well-written verses are worth revisiting for snippets of lyrical dexterity. In the first, he buries a double entendre that’s either about cruising or shooting in the final two bars (“Arm out the window, through the city, I maneuver slow / Cock back, snapback, see my cut through the holes”); in the second, he’s talking about being a political refugee and purchasing asylum, wryly observing “Everything’s for sale.” The final verse finds him in Tony Montana mode, chilling in Cuba and deploying an immigrant metaphor that is more compelling than complete.
Jay’s style circa 2011 is simple: fly, high-minded talk with the aim of making at least a few bars go over a listener’s head. It’s an easy posture for him to be in, a well-worn and cloud-lined road that he paces confidently. He’s the Michael Jordan of rap, but he’s operating during the second three-peat: you marvel at the sheen of confidence and the flashes of greatness, not necessarily the jaw-dropping displays. And that’s the exact sort of thing that may have Kanye in “Big Brother” mode throughout Watch The Throne.
The one thing Kanye West never doesn’t do is try too hard, and rhyming on tracks with someone he no doubt considers one of the greatest rappers ever is sure to inspire him to do that. But no matter how hard Kanye tries, he can’t escape Jay’s shadow by trying to outgrow it. Hitting second isn’t a help here, but ‘Ye can’t help but remind people that Jay was his kingmaker, referencing the Roc-a-Fella dynasty sign in his first verse before Jay paternally threatens to murk anyone running up on his little buddy. And floating the idea of a “What would Hova do?” bumper sticker says plenty about the kind of acolyte Kanye is.
There’s also a very Jay-ish tenor to Kanye’s boasts and shots. “Luxury rap, the Hermès of verses / Sophisticated ignorance, write my curses in cursive” begs to be ornately fonted and Tumblr’d relentlessly. And the subliminal shots at Drake for purloining ‘Ye’s 808s and Heartbreak ethos aspire to be subtle enough to be ignored by the blithely unaware, but “N—as talkin’ real reckless, stuntmen / I adopted these n—as, Phillip Drummond” is even hashtagged properly, and his final bars about “damn lames” accepting their flaws make a little too much sense to be about anything but the Canadian croon-rapper. Kanye wins on style and merit, but it feels as juvenile and pointless as any of Jay’s many half-bar bullets at lower tax brackets: why Kanye even needs to scuff his knuckles might have more to do with Jay than ‘Ye. (Aside to Aubrey: never say something like “I’m feelin’ like the throne is for the taking, watch me take it” on a DJ Khaled track and expect to come away unscathed.)
None of that makes “Otis” disappointing; it’s a strong album cut that shows off the chemistry the Jay-‘Ye tag team has. It’s a little heavy on laughing at and not with the listener, especially given the disconnect between the Throne-rs’ trajectory and Main Street’s. And for a song this spare, relying heavily on its sample, key stabs, and drum thumps, that sort of approach (and the abrupt ending) will leave some a bit cold.
But trying a little tenderness? Nah. Kings reign from on high.