Getting an album the day it comes out, then listening to it and talking about it with our friends—we feel like we're in high school again. Anyway, we here at Popdust spent the day reviewing Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch the Throne, one song at a time, and now that we've finished, we're presenting you all 12 of our reviews in neatly compiled, ranked format. Starting with our least favorite song and going up to our very favorite, here's what we thought about Jay & 'Ye's much-anticipated work. Thanks for reading all day, and can't wait to see you again for Turn Away From the Throne, You Infidels in a couple years' time.
No. 12: "Who Gon Stop Me"
Sounds Like: Jay and Kanye's grand dubstep experiment, name-checking and sampling most of a Flux Pavilion song to proclaim themselves unstoppable. It's about all they do, too; save for the midsection, where Jay's rap and the most dynamic part of the beat boost each other up, "Who Gon Stop Me" might as well be a mostly-unchanged mixtape cut.
Pros: That Flux Pavilion song was good, right? You hear pretty much the entire thing, and credit Kanye's "extra production" for making it sound slightly less blown-out than the original. Some people might call that a con; we've got different ideas. For instance:
Cons: This is nothing like the Holocaust, and "ixnay on my dixnay" doesn't even make Pig Latin grammatical sense. (The word you're searching for is "ickday," assuming you're not George Washington.) Let's take a break from Kanye, though; "like a rabbit, I like carrots. I'm allergic to having bunny ears" and "like, nope" would be bad enough had Jay not sounded temporarily out-of-breath from the exertion. There's boasting, then there's not even trying.
Song Winner: At least Jay restricts his embarrassing lines to one-offs; the rest of his verse is solid or at least attached to a solid beat. Kanye's are repeats.
Definitive Self-Aggrandizing Lyric: Jay's "Pablo Picasso, rock those rookies / graduated to the MOMA, and I did all of this without a diploma."
No. 11: "Made in America" Featuring Frank Ocean
Sounds Like: A patriotic anthem that's more subtle than "Empire State Of Mind," with the pulsing synth reminiscent of Toto's "Africa" underneath Ocean's chorus.
Pros: Ocean recalls the names of those not only important to African-American history (Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King, Malcolm X), but American history in general. But while 'Ye spends his time looking back, remembering his rise from summer school student to in-demand producer ("I told my mama I was on the come up / She said 'you going to school I'll give you a summer' / The she met NO ID and gave me his number / 10 years later she driving a Hummer"), Hov is planning ahead for the future and his potentially expanding family. (That's the sound of millions of blogs launching speculative "What Should Beyoncé and Jay-Z Name Their Unborn Child?!" posts.) Like "Welcome To The Jungle," this is Jay at his most vulnerable, revealing things he may be thinking but not regularly willing to share with others. While the song's chorus seems to honor all of those "Made In America," the track is really a look at the history these two have shared and perhaps their differing futures, which is a fitting fixture towards the end of the album.
Cons: The midtempo track is carried by Ocean's smooth chorus, but for someone known for his NSFW lyrics with and without Odd Future, hearing him sing the sweet, innocent-as-apple-pie lyrics seems a bit confusing.
Definitive Self-Aggrandizing Lyric: Kanye is nowhere near modest when referencing the power just about anything he does has over ye old Internet. "Old folks'll tell you not to play in traffic / A million hits and the web crashes—damn!" could be about a number of things—the unexpected remarks about George Bush during the telethon for Hurricane Katrina, crashing Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the VMAs, joining Twitter—all of which went viral in a matter of seconds. This tongue-in-cheek reference to his mass fame packs extra punch thanks to his seemingly indifferent attitude towards it all.
Song Winner: Frank Ocean's "Sweet Baby Jesus" might be stuck in your head for the rest of the day (or have you reaching for your copy of Talladega Nights) but for us, it's Kanye who manages to both appreciatively give thanks to his rise to fame as well as generate more than one eye roll with his bravado ("This ain't no fashion show, motherfucker we live it").
No. 10: "Why I Love You" Featuring Mr. Hudson
Sounds Like: "I Love You So" by French group Cassius, buffed and slotted like a jewel into Watch the Throne's final track. "Why I Love You" is among the album's most ambivalent tracks, about Jay-Z and Kanye's paranoia, resentment and reluctant love toward fans, labels and each other. Other tracks on Watch the Throne might reward closer, repeat listening; "Why I Love You" demands it.
Pros: "Why I Love You" almost sounds beefy enough to justify its final-track slot, and there's more direct interplay between Jay and Kanye here than anywhere else on Watch the Throne. Too many ostensible "features" don't sound like the other guy on the credits even listened to his absent guest's part before pasting his segment into the track; Jay and Kanye at least sound like they're aware of what the other guy's doing. It'll probably sound great live.
Cons: Notice the "almost" in that last paragraph. For a closer to an album of Watch the Throne's scope, "Why I Love You" feels more like the third-to-last track, beat and verses and sample content to operate at 70% strength. The abrupt ending, lacking even an outro, doesn't help, and to say Mr. Hudson doesn't earn his featured credit is an understatement.
Song Winner: A tie; both Jay and Kanye impress even if you could untwine their respective contributions.
Definitive Self-Aggrandizing Lyric: "Please, Lord, forgive him / for these n----s know not what they do." What's more definitive or self-aggrandizing than invoking Jesus's final words?
No. 9: "Lift Off" Featuring Beyonce
Sounds Like: A percussion and synth-heavy track with aspirations of being a stadium jam, where the actual lyrics are an afterthought.
Pros: Sharp snare drums propel the transition from Beyoncé's chorus to Kanye and Jay's verses. B's words are highly catchy—even if "moon" and "stars" are pretty obvious—blasting on repeat throughout the track. The last minute or so is the most interesting, as the chorus which we've heard over and over gets reworked on some new percussion, but alas, it's just an outro.
Cons: Given it's the second track on the album and boasts a Beyoncé guest appearance, we were expecting this song to really get things started, or at least have the most obvious commercial appeal. It appears to be going for the latter, as the trio attempt to take advantage of the recent trend of aerial-themed, inspirational anthems ("Firework," "Lighters"). But rather than explode into Kanye's rhymes, there's a lengthy intro filled with too many sounds before giving way to Beyonce's (somewhat cheesy) chorus. B's vocals are always welcomed, but at 30 seconds it feels overwrought, just delaying the inevitable awesomeness that never quite materializes. Kanye's verse starts off strong before he begins mumbling his lyrics, while Jay's follow-up is almost nonexistent. The song looks to have most mainstream appeal (Beyoncé certainly never hurts with that) but there isn't enough of a definitive or inventive line to really motivate us to "take it to the stars," without the use of tired solar system references. We were at least expecting 'Ye to squeeze in something about Uranus.
Definitive Self-Aggrandizing Lyric: A tie between 'Ye's "I got the whole city/They about to go off" and Bey's collective bragging in the chorus: "We gonna take it to the moon, take it to the stars/How many people you know can take it this far?" Because, well, we don't have an answer for that question.
Song Winner: We'd say West has it over Jay, but this song is really all Beyoncé. We'll take her constant presence throughout the track as refusal to be just any other guest star.
For songs number eight through five, click NEXT.
No. 8: "Welcome to the Jungle"
Sounds Like: Borrowing an obvious title from a Guns N' Roses song, it's a paranoid, slightly manic look into the mind of Hov.
Pros: For such an anticipated "super album" that boasts all the riches and accolades these two have gained over the years, an insightful, smart look at what still can plague even the biggest star is highly unexpected. Jay kills it on his two lengthy versus, fitting in another Michael Jackson reference ("I’m a tortured soul, I live in disguise / Rest in peace to the leader of the Jackson 5") and blatantly stating his own unhappiness ("Either they know or don’t care I’m fucking depressed / No crying in public, Just lying to judges"). The most quotable line, however, comes from Swizz Beatz, whose "Goddammit" is hardly groundbreaking, but conveys just enough unexpected frustration to be replicated for months to come.
Cons: It can be tiring to hear rappers wine about their problems—ahem, Drake, and we might as well lump Kanye in there, too—yet somehow over the course of his longstanding career it's refreshing coming from someone like Jay. Our only complaint is that he's a little too hard on himself.
Definitive Self-Aggrandizing Lyric: Most of the track is consumed by Jay's self-doubt ("I look in the mirror, My only opponent"), though things spiral downward after he initially announces himself as King of the Jungle, starting the track off with a bombastic statement like much of what that fills the rest of the album ("Black Axl Rose, Move halfs and wholes / Come down to the jungle, Just ask for Hov"). Whether he believes this or not is another story.
Song Winner: With a compilation of a career's worth of second-guessing amidst immense praise, the track is undeniably Jay-Z's, as he manages to make even his own insecurities sting with ferocity.
No. 7: "Gotta Have It"
Sounds Like: A cool reminder that Jay-Z and Kanye West are not to be fucked with. The two trade lines instead of verses in what results in a surefire example of what can happen when two pros team up.
Pros: Both come at the track hard, boasting their influence while holding allegiance to their hometowns (Brooklyn and Chicago, respectively). Except without blatant love letters to said cities, which we've heard before, they trade shout-outs to each other's hoods. Finishing their partner's thoughts in a way we've come to expect is still satisfying, particularly when filled with humorous pop culture references ("Cause I’m richer, and prior to this shit was movin’ freebase"). Along with its subtle boasting, the haunting backing vocals and accompanying tambourine allow this to remain a genuine head-bobber.
Cons: Even though they're not exactly compliments ("(Ain’t that where the Heat play?) / Yep (Niggas hate ballers these days)/ Ain’t that like LeBron James? (Ain’t that just like D-Wade) /
(Wait)") we could do without the Miami Heat references. We expected more from part-owner of The Nets and a Chicago native.
Definitive Self-Aggrandizing Lyric: "I'm planking on a million / I'm riding through your hood, you can bank I ain't go no ceiling." Even Jay knows it's never too late to capitalize on a meme.
Song Winner: Jay-Z, for his direct address to "mother fucker" rather than Kanye's gentler, "LOLOLOL to White America" attempt to reach the kids, when going in on a new verse.
No. 6: "That's My Bitch" Featuring Elly Jackson
Sounds Like: The most explicitly throwback hip-hop cut from the set, thanks to samples from perennial favorites like the Incredible Bongo Band's "Apache" (Sugarhill Gang's "Apache," Nas' "Made You Look") and James Brown's "Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved" (Public Enemy's "Brothers Gonna Work It Out," Big Daddy Kane's "Set It Off"). Improbably, it features a cameo from British songstress Elly Jackson, better known as frontwoman of UK synth-pop revivalists La Roux ("Bulletproof").
Pros: The old-school melange, courtesy of legendary '90s rapper/producer Q-Tip, suits two old souls like Jigga and 'Yeezy, who sound energized by the familiar sample sounds of their youth. (Jay's youth, anyway—Kanye probably grew up listening to Tribe records.) Reflecting the stage each's personal life is currently in, 'Ye is just as demeaning as he is complimentary when describing his woman ("I paid for them titties, get your own"), while Jay has nothing but nice things to say about his female of choice ("How can somethin’ so gangsta be so pretty in pictures?") Smart man—nobody likes sleeping on the couch, even if it is a gold-framed, velvet-lined, body-conforming $200,000-plus couch.
Cons: Elly Jackson is kind of wasted on the hook, though what she's even doing on the song in the first place is a mystery. Also, some of the high art references ("Call Larry Gagosian, you belong in museums") feel a little token.
Definitive Self-Aggrandizing Lyric: "Blew the world up soon as I hit the club with her / Too Short called, said "I fell in love with her.""
Song Winner: Sorry Hov, you might got it better in real life with the Queen, but we prefer Kanye's super-sleazy, borderline-despicable model/stripper dalliances. "The second girl with us, that's our wife." Don't ever change, 'Ye.
No. 5: "Murder to Excellence"
Sounds Like: Two different songs, for one thing. The first part ("Murder") is a melancholy, Swizz Beats-produced lamentation of black-on-black violence, built around a schoolgirl-sounding vocal sample from Romanian twin duo Indiggo's "La La La." The second part ("Excellence") is similarly laid back, but more triumphant-sounding as the two celebrate their lives representing the best case scenario for their background.
Pros: It's an interesting experiment, presenting the best and worst of the black experience within the same song, and for the most part it works—there's enough continuity between the two parts musically that the transition isn't jarring, and the title helps to explain what's going on. And the two are clearly invested in the material, especially on "Murder," where Kanye raps "I feel the pain wherever in my city wherever I go / 314 soldiers died in Iraq, 509 died in Chicago."
Cons: The "Paper read murder / Black on black murder" hook from "Murder" is a little overbearing and clumsy.
Definitive Self-Aggrandizing Lyric: "Black excellence, Truly yours"
Song Winner: We'll give "Murder" to Kanye ("Heard about at least 3 killings this afternoon / Lookin’ at the news like damn I was just with him after school") but "Excellence" to Jay ("In sheepskin coats, I silence the lamb / Do you know who I am Cla-riccccce?"), so a draw overall.
For songs number four through two, click NEXT.
No. 4: "Otis" Featuring Otis Redding
Sounds Like: Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness," if Otis never got around to explaining what it is you "got to, got to" do to cure a woman's weariness. The album's lead single, it's probably the most conventionally crafted song on Watch the Throne, sounding like one of the old-school-soul-based beats Kanye made his bones with crafting—though, thankfully, Kanye is smart enough not to speed up Redding's voice to near-chipmunk level.
Pros: Both rappers are at their narcissistic best here, Kanye showing off his "other other Benz" and Jay threatening to "call the paparazzi on [him]self." Over the album's least heavy-handed beat, both rappers feel like they're just having a good time hanging out and being the two most successful rappers on the planet, which is basically the musical equivalent of listening to George Clooney and Brad Pitt banter about nothing much in particular in the Ocean's movies. (And yes, we mean that as a compliment. A big one, in fact.)
Cons: The sound of Otis Redding, so comfortable and enjoyable at the beginning, becomes borderline interminable by song's end, after you've heard his "got to, GOT TO!!" grunting for about the 200th time. It's only right that Otis gets a posthumous guest artist credit on the song, since he probably puts in the most work of anyone.
Definitive Self-Aggrandizing Lyric: "I invented Swag." (Jay-Z, of course.)
Song Winner: 'Yeezy and Jay are on a level playing field in most respects, but when it comes to declaring one's own awesomeness, no one can or ever has been able to fuck with Jay-Z. So absolute is the Jigga Man's confidence that his claims to have "got [his] swagger back" are shocking—is Jay really trying to say that he lost it at one point?
No. 3: "No Church in the Wild" Featuring Frank Ocean
Sounds Like: One of the darker tracks on Kanye's 808s & Heartbreak album, complete with a 16-bar verse of cartoonishly auto-tuned crooning. Occasional animal sounds ("the wild") augment a growling bass line, choppy synths and a pounding drum track, with golden-throated Odd Future lieutenant Frank Ocean showing up to sing the hook.
Pros: It's damn foreboding for an opener, impressively tense and fairly exciting. Jay sets things off at an appropriately grandiose level with his "Tears on the mausoleum floor / Blood stains the coliseum doors" opening couplet, and Kanye taking the imagery to the next level with his introduction, "Coke on her black skin made a stripe like a Zebra / I call that Jungle Fever." It's one of the album's most purely cinematic tracks, its menacing throb sounding like the perfect prelude to a big action scene, or a creepy soundtrack to a particularly ill-advised sex scene.
Cons: All involved go a little thick with the religious imagery at points, resulting in awkward lyrical moments like "Your love is my scripture / Let me into your encryption" and "Is Pious pious cause God loves pious?"
Definitive Self-Aggrandizing Lyric: "Jesus was a carpenter, 'Yeezy laid beats / Hov spit that Holy Ghost, get the hell up out your seats."
Song Winner: Kanye, for the "jungle fever" couplet and the more-with-less party/hangover summation: "Sunglasses and Advil / Last night was mad real."
No. 2: "New Day"
Sounds Like: Watch the Throne's first introspective moment. RZA produced the track, anchored by a stormy piano line, clinical chimes and slightly '90s beat, with a brief brass sample that appears just to collapse in on itself. Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" recurs throughout "New Day," but her voice has been twisted into a minor key and salted with autotune so all the joy leaches out; when Nina sings "it's a new life," it's eerie enough that you sense the last was regrettable.
Pros: All the above is gorgeous, and it's in service of Watch the Throne's most humble lyric. Dedicated to their (hypothetical) sons, Kanye and Jay resolve not to make the mistakes their parents did, but it might all be for naught. "Sorry, junior, I already ruined you," Jay raps, and it's hard not to be moved--if not by the verses, then by their moody underpinnings, particularly by the end, where a distorted, panned guitar sample and Simone's full lyric lends them a coda.
Cons: So what if Jay-Z and Kanye end up having daughters? What if their kids are gay or otherwise don't have college girlfriends, or what if they really do want to hit the strip club? What if Kanye's kid turns out Republican anyway, or Jay's son doesn't want to have a drink with his dad in his tweens? To be fair, these designer-kid lyrics plague every "to my unborn child" song in music history. They're still a problem. If you're looking for cons in the production, though, look elsewhere.
Song Winner: RZA and Nina Simone. "New Day" wouldn't be nearly as haunting had either's work been absent. We'll give Kanye an edge here, since he helped produce.
Definitive Self-Aggrandizing Lyric: None, really. It's not that kind of track.
For our #1 song off Watch the Throne, click NEXT.
No. 1: "N----s in Paris"
Sounds Like: In many ways, the real intro to Watch the Throne, and not just because of the title drop. Paris exists here solely as a place you're not, a backdrop for the skulk of a beat (by Hit-Boy and Ye) and for Jay and Kanye to lay a swath of luxury across all they survey. There's also a Blades of Glory sample ("No one knows what it means, but it's provocative!), as self-deprecating as things get.
Pros: The final minute, which brought at least one listening-session attendee to an exclamation-point paroxysm. The entire bass frequency exists for this purpose; it's so overpowering you don't even notice the chorus behind it is a tad canned. "You are now watching the throne," raps Ye, stating the obvious; by the time Jay joins in for "I'm definitely in my zone," your attention might as well be locked.
Cons: This is not Kanye's shining moment. The bleary bathroom-stall lines would be lambasted if they turned up on a guest spot instead of amid a golden-covered album event, and Ye doesn't fully recover for several verses. You could argue that the Blades of Glory bit means he's in on it; doesn't help.
Song Winner: Jay, although remove that one verse and it'd be a tossup.
Definitive Self-Aggrandizing Lyric: "I go Michael -- take your pick: Jackson, Tyson, Jordan, game six."
Agree with our rankings? Think we did Frank Ocean a disservice? Pissed off we didn't wait for the album to come out on vinyl before we reviewed it? Let us know all about in the comment section.