The Throne (Watch The Throne listening session)
Monday, August 1
Better than: any listening session I’ve ever been to.
Album listening parties have almost always existed as excuses to drink on the record company’s dwindling dime, the music itself largely ignored; background noise beneath layers of industry chit-chat, forgotten in an anonymous bar. The last two Def Jam/G.O.O.D. Music parties—this, and Big Sean’s night at the Standard in June—have been something else: big-budget affairs where music is to be heard, visuals seen. You want to be social? Stay home.
No phones. No cameras. No electronics of any kind. No +1’s. No ifs, ands, buts, or Tweets.
Last night’s Watch the Throne event, held at the Hayden Planetarium at the Natural History Museum, was akin to a movie premiere. (If I were a worse writer, I’d say that the stars came out!!! LOL.) Kanye and Jay-Z laughed alongside one another, putting certain rumors to bed. Beyoncé hugged Kelly Rowland; photographers caught Jada Pinkett, Q-Tip, Gayle King and Andre Balazs; Busta Rhymes wore a long-sleeved Team Russia rugby jersey, even though it was a million degrees out. DJ Khaled literally climbed over seats. John Meneilly, Jay-Z’s business manager, ran around the third floor frantically asking strangers, “Do you know Grizzly Bear? Have you seen Edward?”
Throughout the night, a thousand people were corralled into the planetarium like so many elementary school classes, moving down rows of cinema seating and staring upwards at the domed ceiling. As the lights went down, necks tilted back to see visuals by way of G.O.O.D.’s resident wunderkinds Mike Waxx and Mike Carson; it was like a Microsoft screensaver on Five Hour Energy—appropriate for a voyage into the uncharted and the unleaked. Planets spun around as if on dizzy bats; constellations turned to blurs, their speed warping with the press of a button. Honestly, it’s a shame that everyone can’t listen to this album in this way, because it felt so right.
But all of the spectacle would mean nothing if the music wasn’t good. It is. It’s very good, borderline great, and thank God for that: a Best of Both Worlds Redux would’ve left hip-hop without a clear leader, and with all of these Tea Party rappers making their way up in the ranks, it would’ve been disastrous for the industry.
Anyway, on to the actual track-by-track breakdown. There was a lot to get, and I didn’t nearly come close to getting it all. My immediate thoughts—taken in a pitch-black room, scribbled in a non-electronic notepad, liable to change on further listens—are below:
1.) “No Church in the Wild”: Frank Ocean makes good use of his time on Watch The Throne; his hooks steal the show. His voice heavily processed over a bedrock of thundering drums and marching rhythms, Frank asks, “What’s a king to a god? What’s a god to a nonbeliever?” Kanye sounds like his vocal cords have been run through an electrical socket.
2.) “Lift Off”: How fitting that we’re in a planetarium! (LOL.) Bruno Mars was originally on this song, but he has apparently been turned into glue; Beyoncé alone thunders: “We gonna take it to the moon/ We gonna take it to the stars/ How many people you know take it this far?” There’s a soulful breakdown, blended with Fool’s Gold futurism; also, NASA’s internal communiqué has been pasted into the middle-section.
3.) “N****s in Paris”: Man, this beat is crazy. Crazy! I wrote an entire line of exclamation points (with “EXCLAMATION POINTS!”) in my notepad because of this beat. It sounds like something Gucci Mane would rap over as opposed to these Gucci men, and I mean that in the best way possible. Kanye raps, “She said we could get married at the mall/ Wonders how she could have it all/ Told her meet me in the bathroom stall.” The song is an excuse for Jay-Z and Kanye to just stunt on everyone.
4.) “Otis”: This song has been released; dissect it at home. I didn’t take notes during this song: I instead took joy in watching Kanye’s entire section launch into a recreation of two Clueless scenes.
5.) “Gotta Have It”: Kanye opens up one of his verses with: “LOLOLOL-uh, White America, assassinates my charactah,” which is awesome. Also awesome? This is the first intriguing Neptunes beat in a long time, due to the fact that it doesn’t sound like the Neptunes produced it. There’s a high-pitched loop throughout, sounding like Bollywood, feeling like a scary movie.
6.) “New Day”: Jay-Z and Kanye get very personal on this song, with Jay speaking to his unborn son and apologizing for the paparazzi that will be a constant presence throughout his life: “Sorry, junior, I already ruined ya.” This RZA production feels like being on the inside of a hospital machine. The sample unwinds itself over time, coy, playing hard to get. (Turns out that it’s Nina Simone’s “Feelin’ Good,” her refrain of “Birds flyin’ high, you know how I feel” coming at the very end.) Kanye might be referring to Amber Rose when he says, “Strip club, I learned the hard way that wasn’t where to find love.”
7.) “That’s My Bitch”: Leaked one year ago, this now has revised lyrics but the same bounce; a new hum and some added bleep-bloops. I watched a planet burst into flames and tear through space, while writing “Bongos!” So, my notes aren’t perfect for this one. I loved the song then, I love it now; the planet erupting overhead was very cool.
8.) “Welcome to the Jungle”: Swizzy! Jay-Z opens his verse a bit on the nose, mentioning Axl Rose, and an entire world groans. (That’s not a comment on the whole song, though.) Once again, the two go very dark, piercing guitars making for the beat. Kanye says, “I asked her what she wants to be at 25—she said alive.” Yikes! Jay counters with, “My nephew gone, my heart is torn.” Oof. Then later, Kanye: “When I thought I had everything, I lost it all.” Everyone thought this album would be brags on brags on brags, but there’s a lot of heart in here.
9.) “Who Gon’ Stop Me?”: But that doesn’t mean there isn’t bragging! Over a beat constructed from the Flux Pavilion song that’s been playing in my apartment non-stop, Kanye says, “Ixnay on my dixnay, that’s Pig Latin, you bitchnay.” Well, not every lyric is going to win a Grammy. Kanye mentions something about the Holocaust on the hook, but I don’t know what; it’s probably regrettable. Jay-Z mixes gun talk with talk about his past: “MOMA, and I did it all without a diploma… Middle finger to my old life.”
10.) “Murder to Excellence”: When you hear the upbeat children’s chorus, you don’t expect an examination of black-on-black crime and the struggles in rising above. (That is, until they start singing “black on black murder” in war chant fashion.) This song, which is really two-in-one, is like a latter-day “Jesus Walks,” mixing conscious lyrics and materialistic fetishism in a way that’s always existed as an internal conflict in Kanye’s brain. Here, he compares Chicago to Iraq, citing statistics of 41 dead in 24 hours; moments later, he boasts, “Ain’t nothing new but the shoes.” It’s a chilling few minutes.
11.) “Made in America”: Frank Ocean returns! He sings proud: “Sweet brother Martin, sweet queen Coretta, sweet brother Malcolm, sweet queen Betty… sweet brother Joseph, sweet Mary, sweet baby Jesus.” This seems like an intended bookend to “We Shall Overcome,” a comment on Obama’s residence in the White House and a wishful entryway into post-racial America. (Look how these two made it in America, they say!) That’s a very positive outlook, and it’s a very pretty song. It ends weirdly, though, with halting piano stabs.
12.) “Why I Love You”: In his first verse, Jay-Z supposedly talks about Dame Dash, a lead-in to a song based around paranoia battling loyalty. (I wish I took better notes, here.) Elsewhere, he references the over-quoted Scarface and cocaine and generic rappers: “Fly pelican fly, turn the jets on it/For the trillionth time, like Tourette’s on it,” a line he had much trouble with in the leaked WTT documentary. Asteroids swarmed, planets broke apart, and the song ended abruptly.
The lights came up, and all I could do was blink.
Critical bias: I am a Kanye stan. I am a Jay-Z stan. I’m hoping to be a Throne stan.
Overheard I: “What time is it? Does anyone wear a watch?”
Overheard II: “If you were Consequence’s manager, wouldn’t you bring him to the listening session and have him sit front row?”
Overheard III: “Wouldn’t it be awesome if Jay-Z and Kanye just invited everyone here tonight not even to play the album, but just to experience the planetarium? To encourage the arts and sciences?”
Random notebook dump: An iTunes representative was flown in to show face, as Apple is the exclusive carrier of WTT for its first four days of release. He was not egged by independent music retailers.