Jay-Z and Kanye West had nothing to prove in 2011. Jay-Z had released The Blueprint 3 three years prior and was still one of the most significant figures in hip hop. One of the only guys who could have challenged his spot at the top was Kanye West, who had released what is arguably his greatest album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the year before. No one was bigger in the world of music than these two. The fact that they made a whole album together at the height of their respective powers is still mind-boggling.
So what do two of the best rappers in the world talk about on their collaborative album? Being the best rappers in the world, of course. And their incredible wealth. And social status. And power. Watch the Throne is, in essence, a 45-minute masterclass on braggadocio and lack of humbleness. It’s unrelenting, to the point that it’s basically a meta concept album about its place as an instant classic.
That would seem completely and pointlessly egotistical if Watch the Throne wasn’t so goddamn fun. Through the soul samples, guest spots, and larger-than-life production, the album creates a monolithic statue to its own greatness, but it does so in a way that invites you into the party. There’s no pointless bashing or even any explicit negativity: it’s one big celebration. When other artists are mentioned, it’s with reverence. Jay-Z calling himself the “black Axl Rose” on ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ is hilarious and weirdly endearing.
The first voice we hear on the album doesn’t actually belong to either of its stars but rather to Frank Ocean. This is the first in a long line of celebrity cameos sprinkled throughout the proceedings. The names are wild: Beyonce, RZA, Pharell, Bruno Mars, Bon Iver, Kid Cudi, Q-Tip, LMFOA, Will Ferell (via Blades of Glory). The duo’s kitchen-sink approach to samples and production carries over to their wide variety of VIP guest list patrons.
But some of the biggest stars are the ones that show up in absentia: Otis Redding, most famously, but also Nina Simone, James Brown, and Curtis Mayfield. These are the artists that Watch the Throne is directly indebted to and the ones to whom Jay-Z and Kanye both offer spots at the throne.
The mood isn’t exclusively joyous: ‘Murder to Excellence’ and ‘Made in America’ explicitly deal with the lack of agency in Black America, while ‘Why I Love You’ leans hard into disappointment and betrayal. But largely, Watch the Throne is at its best when it leans into the giddiness and extravagance of its central thesis: that this is the coolest shit you’ve ever heard, and you get to come along for the ride.
Where Jay-Z and Kanye went after this perhaps sullies a bit of the lustre. Magna Carta Holy Grail was a disappointing follow up for Shawn Carter, and it took years before he returned with 4:44, completely abandoning the bombast of his past work for something more introspective and experimental. Kanye continued to do Kanye things:
- Put out excellent albums.
- Put out not so amazing albums.
- Put out middling gospel albums.
- Be a MAGA supporter.
- Dress like a water bottle.
We’re currently, as of publishing, waiting for Donda. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if we continue to wait indefinitely as Kanye stews in the confines of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
But maybe the starker realities of better days gone by actually adds to the appeal of Watch the Throne. Never again would Jay-Z nor Kanye be at the critical, commercial, and cultural peak that they were during 2011. It’s never going to last, so while you can, why not solidify your place at the top of the throne?