It’s way too early to have a critical judgment on Watch The Throne; didn’t you read the rules? But since Kanye West and Jay-Z’s colossal collaboration plopped into the raging waters of Internet opinion early Monday morning, I’ve been watching for ripples. Here are ten new things that Watch The Throne might bring to music and the music industry in the near future.
Frank Ocean’s Impending Superduperstardom He’s the number one reason human beings have said “He’s in Odd Future?!” and he also has the first line on Watch The Throne, asking “Human beings in a mob/ What’s a mob to a king?” on the dark, blasphemous “No Church In the Wild.” That hook, which builds a pyramid with non-believers at the top, is in a lane of disenchanted soul that Ocean invented, or at least resurfaced; that “Wild” exists on the same album where he shows off his sweetness while reciting a laundry list of black heroes on “Made in America” is evidence of his range. Killer placement to show off his killer chops should serve as a springboard for Ocean, who passed whatever kingmakers’ exams Kanye/Jay threw his way and will be one of the most coveted collaborators in music for the forseeable future. (It’s endearing, then, that he sounds somewhat conflicted about his success.)
An Influx Of Corny BBM/Facebook/Twitter Statuses “That shit cray” is destined to worm its way into the Internet lexicon; “Ball so hard ma’fuckas wanna find me” is probably going to be part of the loathed fratboy/athlete vernacular. And those two are both parts of just the hook on “Niggas in Paris.” There’s plenty more worth snipping, including both of Ocean’s bits, the “Me and the RZA connect” line in “New Day,” and Kanye’s Pig Latin bars on “Who Gon Stop Me.” The line that might not age all that gracefully? Jay’s “I’m plankin’ on a million” from “Gotta Have It,” which is going to sound really weird to someone in 2014.
More Work For 88-Keys And Hit-Boy Kanye and Jay are listed as the executive producers of this album, but West affiliates 88-Keys and Hit-Boy steal the show. “No Church in the Wild” belongs to old hand 88-Keys, best known for the fantastic farce that was the “Stay Up! (Viagra)” video, and it’s got a couple of low, grinding loops that anchor its ferality. Hit-Boy, now part of Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music tribe (and, apparently, the Very Good Beats imprint underneath it), sets “Niggas in Paris” apart from everything else on the record with a demonic keyboard loop, a smart sample of Jay’s hook, drums that alternate between keeping time and echoing in caves, and the best use of a snippet of dialogue from Blades of Glory music will ever see. And then there’s a superb beat switch-up. It’s unlikely that either of these guys turns into a superproducer, but if one or both ends up with an uptick in work similar to the career renaissance of Kanye mentor No I.D., it will be justified.
Albums Being Recorded In Studios, And Not By Email After his first Throne spin, Maryland producer Arsonal tweeted that he was “done sending beats,” explaining that it’s “hard to vibe over email.” While these inklings of a shift from pastiche projects to cohesive albums have been around for years, and the benefits of concerted studio effort were amply demonstrated by Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it’s going to take mid-level producers and artists resolving to do that sort of work together to bring it about on a genre-spanning scale. There will always be the DJ Khaledified compilations and instrumental-hopping “freestyle” mixtapes, but rappers may well stalk The Throne by keeping circles tighter in the future.
Projects By Partners Collaborative projects in rap aren’t exactly foreign, but they’ve never been bigger. Watch The Throne and Eminem and Royce da 5’9″‘s Hell: The Sequel are much splashier than, say, Nas and Damien Marley’s slept-on Distant Relatives and Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame’s Ferrari Boyz, out today, but they come at a high-water mark for cooperation in the genre. Without Google, a list of rumored collaborations that might get mixtape or album releases: Drake and Lil Wayne; Big Sean, Curren$y, and Wiz Khalifa; Cam’ron and Vado; J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar; the Wu-Tang Clan and D-Block. And that’s before counting the material being churned out by Gucci and Waka with members of the Brick Squad. Now if only Pusha T could hook up with a like-minded rapper, or Big Boi could find a loopy wingman. Or something.
Albums Being Released Digitally First To Ensure Leak Prevention This is the Throne thing the music industry is no doubt most jazzed about: It didn’t leak, not by any conventional understanding of the term. iTunes released it to some consumers at about 11:30 p.m. Sunday night, and it hit file-sharing/downloading/torrenting sites shortly after. But an album becoming available 30 minutes before its official release is nigh unfathomable in the Pirate Bay era. Surely, the tight circles Jay and Kanye share helped (another reason to work closely in studios, maybe?), but the lack of a physical CD that could go missing at any of the many steps of the manufacturing process and appear on the Internet moments later was probably the most important part of this leak prevention plan. Good news for acts and labels who can prioritize digital over physical relatively easily, but obviously terrible news for brick-and-mortar retailers—who were right to be upset about the iTunes exclusivity, and could have caterwauled even more.
Albums Being Leak-Proof Or Otherwise Gimmicky In Order To Deflect Buzz About A Single Listening to WTT for a second time last night, I was struck by how little of it sounds like anything on the radio. The obvious smash candidate, “Lift Off,” isn’t a hit: Beyonce dominates; Kanye sounds half-invested at best; and Jay’s presence is limited to four bars, one a Dale Earnhardt reference. “H.A.M.” failed to gain more than middling purchase on the charts, and “Otis” looks like a top-ten hit at best; shorter songs “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Gotta Have It” are too shrill and too cool, respectively, to be released. “That’s My Bitch,” the closest thing to a trunk-rattling jam, has obvious censorship issues.
Maybe getting the novel angle of a leak-proof album sparked enough interest to make up for the lack of radio love this is sure to receive? Worth noting: MBDTF died on the vine after disappointing first-week sales, getting passed by Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday on its slow march to platinum status, and spawned no top-ten singles. And now WTT looks like it’ll have a similar first week.
Flailing Attempts To Wrap Flows Around Dubstep By Less Nimble Rappers Kanye swings and misses by beginning “Who Gon Stop Me” with “This is something like the Holocaust/ Millions of our people lost,” though Hov fares a lot better, especially when the beat switches from its straightforward Flux Pavilion sample to live audio from laser-based warfare somewhere beyond Saturn. But Jay-Z and Kanye likely know better than most how to hit the pockets in dubstep beats, and their stature grants them the necessary gravitas to not be overwhelmed. Can a B-level rapper do that? (That is not an invitation, Fabolous.)
Attempts To Floss Consciously Watch The Throne is not a story of hardscrabble beginnings and unpaved roads; it’s more like surveying the domain of kings (and the damage of empire) from above. “Murder to Excellence,” the brilliantly-titled look at both black-on-black crime and what Jigga terms “black excellence, opulence, decadence” balances where these guys came from with where they are better than anything else on the album. But seeing Jay and Kanye deign to do even that much—spectacularly rich guys have to rap about something other than being spectacularly rich, mind—is a reminder that, even if they can’t fix things, they know about what’s broken.
Jay-Z’s Third (Or Fourth?) Act Kanye will likely improve as a rapper with every album he releases, and he’s done so on Watch The Throne, hitting hard and scratching at some open wounds. But Kanye at his peak is still somewhere below Jay-Z, who sometimes sounds inspired on this album in ways he hasn’t for some time—to my ears, since he revisited Reasonable Doubt on American Gangster, at least. Few rappers age gracefully, but no rapper has compiled anything like the war chest or acquired anything like the clout that Shawn Corey Carter has. Jay’s still got a little fire in his belly, and that is a promising sign for those who hope he finds a better fate than becoming rap’s Wayne Newton with his insanely taut live shows or moving permanently from the studio to the boardroom.