In 2011, Jay Z and Kanye West shook the rap world with the release of their collaborative album Watch the Throne. It was a historical moment in hip hop; two rap giants coming together for a full-length project after collaborating with each other for a solid decade. With the recent documentary that came out and the state of the pair’s current relationship, it seems right to reflect on the album and its significance six years on.
After watching that documentary, I was shocked that Watch the Throne even managed to come into existence. You never know what could be going on behind the scenes. Fact is, there was definitely some creative differences between the two artists when making the album. One of those differences came to light earlier this year; Kanye wanted to include the n-word in every song title of the album. Jay thought that was absurd, but he gave one exception (“N**gas in Paris”) which ended up being the biggest hit off the project – which Jay wanted to call “Ball So Hard”. So it’s clear their visions never always aligned in the creation of this album.
Question is, why create the album in the first place? They’re both individually successful as it is, but they did it anyway. For Jay it’s business. There’s an insane amount of profit and publicity to gain from a collab album. He’s done it plenty times before with artists you’d never have imagined he’d do one with (R. Kelly, twice, Linkin Park), just to secure the bag. For Kanye it’s a chance to work with his big brother. He’d take any creative chance he gets. In fact, the project was originally supposed to be a six-or-seven collaborative EP. Guess that creativity got the best of them both.
In theory, hip hop’s never seen a collaborative album on such a magnitude. We’ve had Mos Def and Talib Kweli, Birdman and Lil Wayne, Nas and Damian Marley, and more recently Drake and Future. So it’s not like this was a brand new idea in the genre. But none of them compare to two figures like Jay Z and Kanye West teaming up. This fact alone is why it shook the world, before the project even came out. And the fact that they were considering a Watch the Throne II? It was already audacious to begin with.
Despite it not being the first of its kind, Watch the Throne still set a trend for rappers collaborating on projects, or at least theorising a collaboration. Since The Throne, Wiz Khalifa and Ty Dolla Sign have put out a collab mixtape, Gucci Mane has done it with numerous artists and there’s also the mythical Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole album.
So Watch the Throne effectively became the blueprint for collaborative rap albums. It proved that a collab project can be successful as long as there’s chemistry and two high-profiled artists involved.
Sales-wise, Watch the Throne was always destined for success. But the album itself had to be good. A collab album is always a bold move because it could either go perfectly well or horribly wrong. For The Throne’s case, it sent waves across the industry during its time of release. Looking back at it in 2017, over half a decade later, it’s appreciated by fans but it’s not raved about as if its a classic. Maybe it isn’t, though we probably need a few years before anyone can reflect on its ‘classic’ status definitively.
Watch the Throne is far from perfect, but it has timeless offerings scattered across the entirety of the tracklist. “Otis” is a sampling masterpiece, which possesses the strongest display of chemistry between Ye and Hov as they rap verse after verse after each other, “N**gas in Paris” never gets old and there’s also the playful “Gotta Have It” and “That’s My Bitch”. Plus, it’s the most experimental you’ll ever get to see Jay get, whether it’s rapping over dubstep on “Who Gon Stop Me” or the heavy orchestral trap-themed “H•A•M”. That’s achieved with the help of Kanye, who’s always been a master at blending genres such as electronica and soul into hip hop.
Lyrically Jay does his thing for the most part, but Kanye manages to match him and on some tracks surpass him. Watch the Throne is probably Kanye’s most lyrical display of his career. It tells me that Kanye put more heart into the project than Jay would have. Then again, Jay effortlessly provides great one-liners.
What’s also great about WTT is the balance between substance and entertainment. Outside of the fun tracks there’s “Murder to Excellence”, an anthemic two-part ode to black pride. Its message hits hard and is a standout track on the album in terms of content. “New Day” is the most personal song by The Throne on which Jay and Kanye rap as if they are talking to their future sons. These tracks can easily be overshadowed by the more easy-going songs, but upon revisiting I’ve found a new appreciation for tracks like “New Day”.
New appreciation has also emerged for me for the album’s attention to detail. Two years ago, I realised that Kid Cudi sung the outro to “Illest Motherfucker Alive”, without being credited. I then went on to find out that he provides background vocals on three other songs, the recent of which I noticed was his humming during one of Jay’s verses on “Murder to Excellence”. It’s astounding that you can catch details in songs that you never noticed before this many years later. That is the true definition of an album being “timeless”.
The final question that remains is, can there be a collaboration on such a magnitude that manages to surpass The Throne? Nas and Jay? Eminem and Dr. Dre? It’s unrealistic isn’t it? That’s probably why Watch the Throne will forever have a solidified legacy and position in hip hop history.