This is the week of Monday, August 8th and the date marks the fifth birthday of Watch The Throne – a beautiful, pulsating, gilded, collaborative musical effort by Jay and Ye. This is an important – near perfectly produced and enunciated album – that’s a biased opinion but regardless this thing deserves a lot of attention so we’re hosting the first annual Watch The Throne week here at The Open Field in honor of as much. A feature a day, maybe more, and fun stuff in between. na na na.
If you asked me what Kanye West and Jay-Z’s 2011 album, Watch the Throne, encapsulated in one sentence, I would just have to point you to the 2:42 mark in the album’s tenth track, “Murder to Excellence,” because I cannot describe it any better than Jay-Z does.
It’s a celebration of Black excellence
Imagine the mantra that Biggie and Diddy (or P. Diddy, or Puff Daddy, or whatever he is called) gave us in 1997 – “mo’ money, mo’ problems” – and extend that for 12 tracks (16 if you’re on the Bonus version). Ye and Jay gave us an hour’s worth of materialism, grandeur, excess, and all of the downfalls that come with it: feeling like an outsider as a Black man at the top, critics constantly trying to tear down the image of a superstar, and the values that change a person when the money comes rolling in. I can’t say I understand where they are coming from, given my background, but the message is surely clear and very digestible.
That is an understated album cover…
Everything about the album was LARGE. So large, in fact, that it was met with contempt by some in the hip hop community.
“There will be no reprieve for the thieves / There will be no respect for The Thrones”
Killer Mike of Run The Jewels, in the 2013 track, Sea Legs, off of their debut album.
Basically, some took this album as a departure from the “true art” of hip hop, or whatever holier-than-thou reason they had to diss this album. These were two artists that made it in the game, and now they were going to go all commercial on us and brag. Sort of a weird reason to complain, considering the foundation of hip hop is built on braggadocio like this. But despite the critics, there is no denying Watch the Throne’s impact on the genre in the 21st century.
Shea Serrano’s 2015 book, The Rap Yearbook, is a tremendous read for any fan of the genre. It is informative, hysterical, and sheds light on some of the more intimate stories behind the most influential songs in hip hop. And his chapter on the year 2011 names “N***** in Paris” as the most important song of that year. I cannot disagree. That track was everywhere. The song became such an anthem that the two went on a world tour following the album’s release and played it on repeat at every show – including a whopping 12 times in a row when they performed in Paris.
Serrano does an excellent job of diving into the near-perfect dichotomy of Jay and Kanye as a duo as well. By labeling Kanye as the “loudmouth” (who knew?) and Jay as the “machine,” Serrano argues that nothing about that song, or really the album in general, would have delivered the message as effectively without these two points of view. They were perfect to play off of each other, going line for line throughout the album.
Jay is the cold, calculated success story about setting yourself above the rap game by rapping about life in the streets that he is now so far removed from. Kanye, on the other hand, is the boisterous, wild character that is going in his own direction, despite whether it places him above everyone in the rap game or not. The two stories about their meteoric rise to fame is vastly different, but their close friendship and musical relationship ties them to each other like no other duo. Their two different visions of being a successful Black man in modern pop culture gives the listener two paths they can take to reach the same conclusion – that they are above the fray and disconnected from the environment they grew up in, but they still cannot ignore that life altogether, nor can they ignore being Black at the same time.
An even greater testament to the impact of Watch the Throne might actually be the “Rebuttal” section of Serrano’s chapter on “N***** in Paris.” The Rap Yearbook has a portion of the book where, at the end of each year, he has another writer offer a couple paragraphs on another song that came out in said year of the subject song, arguing why that song should have actually been labeled “Most Important.” It allows a discussion to form about what else was going on in the rap game at the time when whatever song Serrano is writing about was released.
And sometimes, I find myself agreeing with the counter-arguments too. 2000’s debate between Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’” and Outkast’s “So Fresh, So Clean,” or 1985’s debate between Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick’s “La Di Da Di” and Run DMC’s “King of Rock” allow the reader to audibly go “hmm” while thinking about differing opinions. Side note: no mention of Nas’ “N.Y. State of Mind” in 1994 was blasphemy, although “Juicy” is probably the greatest rap song of all-time so I’ll accept it.
The 2011 chapter boasts a write-up on “Otis,” which was also on Watch the Throne. So in order to find the most important song of 2011, one did not have to even leave this album in order to find a counter-argument. It just took over everything. Both songs, by the way, took him Grammy awards for “Best Rap Performance” in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
“Ball so hard, I’m shocked too / I’m supposed to be locked up too / If you escaped what I escaped / you’d be in Paris getting f***** up too.”
Jay, getting introspective on us, in a way that only Jay can.
Well, I am going to put those two tracks to the side for a second, and I am going to submit a new nominee off of Watch the Throne as a song that, while it may not be the “most important,” better encapsulates the introspective thinking and conscious understanding of where these two rappers were in their career in 2011. That song, is the sixth track off of this platinum album, titled “New Day.”
A song that boasted production from the Wu Tang Clan’s mastermind, RZA, as well as the legend, Mike Dean, this track was four and a half minutes of Jay and Ye taking a step back from the hard-hitting “I’m rich” message this album carried and examined what this level of success was doing to their lives. The structure of the song presented one verse from each artist, speaking directly to their hypothetical sons (for Kanye, there is no more hypothetical, given that he now has Saint).
Let’s start with Kanye. The constant tabloid-headline-subject, perennial brazen jerk, that has become one of the most polarizing figures in music history. Kanye’s son has to overcome the image of being the spawn of a human that has never learned to shut his mouth, and because of that, Kanye recognizes that there is a stigma that will automatically attach to him. So Kanye decides to lay out a roadmap of what he will teach his kid in order to avoid the trouble that Kanye has gotten into himself.
And I’ll never let my son have an ego
He’ll be nice to everyone, wherever he go
I mean I might even make him be Republican
So everybody know he love white people
Okay, that is a good start. I’m not exactly sure why he had to go right at Republicans, considering there are plenty of Democrats that despise him as well.
And I’ll never let him ever hit the telethon
I mean even if people dying and the world ends
Oh, that’s right. Yeah, you did that stupid thing during a telethon one time.
Kanye proceeds to tell his son that he “never budged” on everything and that was his major drawback. He is right, for sure. Kanye’s verse hits many of his flaws, head on, and he doesn’t shy away from what he has done. If there is one characteristic of Kanye that many casual fans (or haters) understand, it is that this guy is incredibly vulnerable. He is basically constantly living in that sense of insecurity you feel when you text your friend at 4:59 on a Friday afternoon, asking “what are you up to this evening?” and you don’t get an answer back.
“They haven’t answered – why didn’t they answer? – what did I do to piss them off? – do they hate me? – screw them if they hate me – that’s their loss.”
Word to the wise, from Kanye, and from me too: don’t think like that. It’s a waste of time and emotion.
Then Jay-Z comes in on the second verse. Jay has always been a level above Kanye in the rap game, and most of it comes from the fact that he came before Kanye, essentially created Kanye, and quite frankly – because he is more talented than Kanye at rapping.
But Jay’s past escapades are far more nefarious than Kanye. Remember when that wet-blanket-of-a-human-being, Tomi Lahren, wanted to remind us that Jay-Z sold drugs?
Yes, we all remember. Jay-Z also took this sound bite and used it in a song this year with rapper, Pusha T, which was pretty bad ass.
But Jay does NOT shy away from where he came from – he can’t anymore, considering he built his image off of this past.
Sorry, Junior, I already ruined you
Yeah, kind of.
Teach you good values so you can cherish it
Took me 26 years just to find my path
I suppose it is worth mentioning Jay was 26 when he released his debut album, Reasonable Doubt. He was much older when Watch the Throne dropped. But Jay’s verse after this comes from a place of intense self-doubt and insecurity, given his upbringing. For all his past faults, Jay just wants to be a good dad at the end of the day. That’s really all we men really want. Football on Sundays and being a good dad. We are simple animals.
I just pray we was in love on the night that we conceived him
Promise never to leave him even if his Mama tweakin’
‘Cause my dad left me and I promise never repeat him
Never repeat him, never repeat him
Well, Jay, your wife is certainly not going to be tweaking anytime soon. We all know that. But this message has been something Jay has addressed in the past – not wanting to be his father, feeling bad for his mother for raising him solo, forgiving her faults because of her situation, etc. This is the image of Black America that Jay and Kanye still try to address on Watch the Throne, right alongside the image of success and excess. Their starting point is just different – it’s unfortunate, but it’s true. And now that these two have positions of power unlike any of their childhood peers, they have no idea how to deal with it.
So, they might as well ball out a little bit, like “N***** in Paris” shows us, but then understand the potential for downfalls, like “New Day” does. This is the most important song on this outstanding album, because it paints these two larger-than-life characters as mere men. And they understand that men are mortal and have faults.FOLLOW THE OPEN FIELD