Watching the Throne, Looking for More

As we speak, I’m listening to Watch the Throne for the fifth time. The first three times were on the surround system at the house, and these last two have been on headphones. And after five listens, I still have no idea what the hell this is supposed to be.

That’s the issue with Watch the Throne that’s dogged me from the first listen. It did nothing to demand my attention on first listen, proved to have some interesting moments and subtle brilliance at other points upon further spins, but ultimately seems to be about…well, nothing at all.

I mean, of course there’s braggadocio. It’s rap, after all, and it’s these two guys. But never, when either has been at their best, has that been the essence of the music they made. College Dropout is about the struggle, Late Registration is dealing with it, 808s and Heartbreak is about emotional vacancy, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is hedonistic self-medication on wax. Jay’s Reasonable Doubt is the hustler’s diary — and if you don’t believe how real it is, talk to a dope dealer on the East Coast about it — The Blueprint was the first extended and compelling glimpse past Jay’s money and hustle, American Gangster as almost RD‘s prequel. The money and fame, in all of these, were bit players.

So tell me what the theme is here. If it’s about being on top of the game, Jay already did that with The Black Album, and he was far more compelling (going so far as admitting to selling out). There are flashes of outright pro-black ideologies, but some come on a song titled “That’s My Bitch.” There’s a sonic consistency with Kanye’s recent production, largely a product of his new dream team (RZA, Swizz Beatz, Mike Dean, but without No I.D. this time), but without the bass lines that gave MBDTF the oomph necessary to give resonance to all the glitz.

Perhaps that what I’m listening for that I can’t find: a feeling. Where’s the excitement that snatches you and won’t let go? Where are the confessions that you can’t believe you’re hearing? What is this, other than really sophisticated background noise?

And hey, there’s nothing wrong with that. “No Church in the Wild” is dope, and a great way to start an album. The are perfect, the crescendos perfect for getting the party started. If we didn’t know “Try a Little Tenderness” so well, “Otis” would blow us away with its passionate simplicity (though a little more bottom wouldn’t hurt anything). “Gotta Have It” is a great back-and-forth between these two, but doesn’t quite go hard enough to only be 2:21 long. “New Day” is Can-It-Be-So-Simple-type RZA (with Dean and Ye) for the new millennium, with Jay and Kanye on that very theme…but so far gone into fame that the lessons can only be useful for their unborn sons. “Murder to Excellence” is the Jay we didn’t know existed until dead prez’s “Hell Yeah (Remix)” juxtaposed with a celebration of blackness, making it the intersection of faith and the dark past that taught it.

It’s all really good. There isn’t a single track that one could consider whack. But after all these listens, there isn’t one track I feel like I have to turn up. There is no “Runaway” to serve as climax, or “PSA” to crank you up out of nowhere. It’s 12 tracks…and that’s just about it. It’s Kanye’s sound with the lack of focus that marked the most boring time in Jigga’s career, from Vol. 2 and Dynasty.

Welp, that leads to the fun part: it’s Vol. 2 that made Jigga a superstar, and those next albums are the ones that sustained it until his next artistic tour de force, Blueprint. Think about it like that, and it’s not a huge surprise so many people are all over this album. There isn’t a single track you could extract for a playlist that you couldn’t find a place for, and it’s unlikely you’d ever be disappointed to hear it.

That would be great for most artists. That’s just not what I want from Kanye West.

Forget about Jigga. Sure, he’s the contender for the title of best ever, but it’s Kanye that’s the genius. It’s his vision that excited me about this album, his unparalleled ability to take a place in life, uncoil its DNA, and break down everything that makes it. No one has been better at putting good, bad and ugly into rap music and making it all seem so human. He pulled it off talking about working at the gap just as easily as he did when talking about sleeping with pr0n stars. He’s so concerned with what we think of him, but never enough to change what he does, and still unable to live with the fact nobody gives a damn about his story. He’s telling it no matter what, and he’ll be damned if we don’t feel it.

And for the first time since Graduation, it’s just not there. You can hear it all through every other Kanye solo album, and you can even feel it through Blueprint 3. We’ve got the sound from BP3, but so little of the passion. Even if, intellectually, the outright pro-blackness of Watch the Throne is daring, it doesn’t feel defiant or fervent. There’s just something missing.

Maybe there’s not enough room for two narcissists to express themselves over a full album. Maybe Kanye’s unique self-absorption doesn’t leave room for him to bring out the most in Jay (and not everyone can get out the heart of Jigga, as evidenced by his inconsistent catalog).

The original plan was for Watch the Throne to be an EP. If everything i’ve said were about an EP, I’d love it. But that’s not what this is. It’s 12 cool songs masquerading as a statement of dominance.

But it meanders, and I forget that’s what it’s supposed to be. Only the title is a reminder. And that, for me, just isn’t quite what I was looking for. Watch the Throne is good for what it is, but I wanted more.

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