Sophisticated Ignorance: Watch The Throne Turns 10

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Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch The Throne

Released August 8th, 2011 on Def Jam / Roc Nation / Roc-A-Fella

Produced by Kanye West, 88-Keys, Hit-Boy, Pete Rock, Jeff Bhasker, Mike Dean, the Neptunes, Q-Tip, RZA, Sak Pase, Swizz Beatz, S1, Southside, and Lex Luger

Peaked at #1 U.S., #3 U.K.

Singles:

H*A*M” (#28 U.S., #30 U.K.)

Otis” (#12 U.S., #28 U.K.)

“Lift Off” (#48 U.K.)

Ni**as In Paris” (#5 U.S., #10 U.K.)

Why I Love You” (#87 U.K.)

Gotta Have It” (#69 U.S.)

No Church In The Wild” (#72 U.S., #37 U.K.)

In the maelstrom that has been Kanye West since the Kardashian circus began it’s easy enough to forget his roots. He produced a lot of secondary characters in the world of hip hop circa the late Nineties. He produced songs for Foxy Brown, Lil’ Kim, Mase’s Harlem World project, and Da Brat. He comes in late on Dead Prez’s classic Let’s Get Free but steals the show mere minutes before the end. The story always begins in 2001, though, when he produced five tracks on Jay-Z’s crossover moment, The Blueprint, including the Top 10 hit “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and the ultimate diss track “Takeover.” From then on Kanye’s production work was a focus, and he used this as a bridge to get people to listen to his debut The College Dropout, the first of a few times he changed the game. His early albums featured Jay-Z as a mentor and almost a father figure – Hova brought him to the game, Hova was the whole reason he was there.

Ten years later the power dynamic had shifted drastically. Ye’s first three albums made him a star, and then the difficult, musically forward-thinking 808s And Heartbreak made him an artist. The year before he had decamped to Hawaii with his production crew as well as Jay-Z, Pusha T, RZA, and a host of others and made one of the top 5 albums of the 2010s, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Hova, meanwhile, had begun the shift of his focus from strictly music to being a business mogul; his work had begun to suffer but his bank account had never been more robust. The two of them had worked together a lot over the years, most recently on Ye’s “Monster”, a massive posse cut that launched Nicki Minaj into the public consciousness with a verse that she’s never really been able to top. At the top of their respective career arcs, they decided the time had come to do a collaboration record. Why the hell not?

Much of it was recorded in hotel rooms during tours; the process was mostly formed of arguments between Hova and Ye about the direction the album would take. With two massive egos involved it was a wonder that it ever made the light of day, let alone in the state it ended up being. Most of the production was handled by the same team that did My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, with the exception of Kanye’s long-time mentor No I.D., who didn’t think the project did enough to push the envelope creatively. No I.D. would end up with the production credit for “Holy Grail”, a Jay-Z track that had originally been slated for Watch The Throne but ended up on 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, an album you may remember if you bought a new Samsung phone around that time.

The egos weren’t just in the background, though; a cursory glance through the album will quickly show you that they were played out in widescreen on the larger-than-life songs. Before the album’s release Ye described the sound as “luxury rap” and he wasn’t kidding: this is an album by a pair of very successful creatives musing on the American Dream and all of the shiny beautiful things that come along with that. At the same time, there is a deep undercurrent of sociopolitical commentary, which is unsurprising: it’s also an album by a pair of very successful black creatives musing on the achievement of the American Dream by black people: “Murder To Excellence” and “Made It In America” are the flip sides of this lens, with the latter allegedly taking influence from the 1985 “We Are The World” charity single.

The production, though: the production is what makes this album more than just a tossed-off collab album by two people with more money than sense. Almost every track on Watch The Throne is immaculately crafted, making atmosphere and edge come alive through deft use of clever sampling, industrial-edged synth work, and pulsing drums. This, as I implied earlier, are the same things that put My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy over the top. It was a gold-edged luxury record distributed to the masses and it banged, hard. It was also, if we’re being honest, Jay-Z’s last great album. Kanye had one more in the chamber (two if we’re being generous toward The Life Of Pablo) but Hova’s work would sort of fall into a genteel decline, eclipsed by his former protégé and, more importantly, by his wife.

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