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Watch The Throne: “Why I Love You”

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Untitled”

And so, “Why I Love You,” the darkest, most twisted-up song since intro track “No Church In The Wild,” is where this weird, money-burning yet socially-conscious hip-hop event wraps up. Jay is “alone” in “Rome…burning,” asking, “why does it always end up like this?” He lashes out at old friends who don’t think he’s done enough for them. Kanye’s at his side, playing hypeman but coming off more like an annoying crony. The way Kanye pronounces “Huh?!” like it somehow has an “N” in it somewhere is especially grating — and it’s supposed to be.

Here are two guys, obnoxiously gassing themselves up like they’re the only ones left in the whole world, which given the rarefied air they breathe isn’t that far off. Kanye’s “I never been a deep sleeper” interjection — part boast, part confession — is touching, and the way their voices meet up on the word “paranoia” says just about all you need to know about the Throne. But Jay’s also willing to admit that he’s more than a little bit hurt by all these supposed betrayals. In verse two, he tells listeners that the stuff said about him by former friends like Dame Dash and Beanie Sigel really stings, and he expresses it in melodramatic terms, like he’s penning a post-hardcore break-up song: “You ripped out my heart and you stepped on it…”

Written by Brandon

August 25th, 2011 at 2:17 am

Watch The Throne: “Made In America”


Jean-Michel Basquiat, “God, Law”

If the Throne’s fiscal theories don’t creep you out a bit, then perhaps this big, dumb ode to the United States of America will? “Made In America,” however, isn’t Glenn Beck rally nonsense; it’s more like those goofy-ass MSNBC “Lean Forward” ads celebrating America’s greatness while making it quite clear that there’s still a lot of work to do. This song was Jay-Z’s idea, right? He’s the capitalist cornball and Kanye’s the cynic (the child of a college professor and Black Panther), who’s much too worried about speaking truth to power, be it about George W. Bush or Taylor Swift, to buy into this idea that success means anything more than an escape from having to be so fucking regular.

Kanye’s up for the ride, though, along with Frank Ocean, who is probably biting his tongue a bit during the mind-bogglingly unironic hook, which conflates Civil Rights leaders with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Despite all the bullshit, the Throne explain, they’ve made it in America. Jay maintains this approach, rewriting the Pledge of Allegiance as a dedication to his grandmother and “all the scramblers,” rather than the United States of America, which really hasn’t done all that much for him. Still, he acknowledges, through the country’s combination of freedom and corruption, it has allowed him to go from a kid in the Marcy Projects to a cultural force…

Written by Brandon

August 24th, 2011 at 11:06 pm

Watch The Throne: “Murder To Excellence”


Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Horn Players”

Jay-Z dedicates “Murder To Excellence” to Danroy Henry Jr., killed by police gunfire in 2010. Later, he says he’s the reincarnation of Fred Hampton, who was murdered by the FBI, in his sleep, on December 4th, 1969, the day Jay was born: “I arrived on the day Fred Hampton died / I guess real niggas multiply.” That line sounds hot, but when it’s placed alongside Kanye’s declaration that “it’s time that we redefine black power,” it elucidates the Throne’s vision: Political rhetoric and action, particularly “by any means necessary,” must be replaced with simpler, pragmatic goals of economic success and independence. It’s a continuation of the sentiment from Jay’s infamous verse on The Black Album’s “Moment Of Clarity,” where he confesses that he “dumbed down for [his] audience to double his dollars,” while at the same time kinda dismissing conscious hip-hop by explaining that he “can’t help the poor if he’s one of them…”

Written by Brandon

August 24th, 2011 at 10:22 pm

Watch The Throne: “Who Gon Stop Me”

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Masque”

Sampling Flux Pavillion’s “I Can’t Stop,” the Throne grab hold of the same music that so many regular-ass young dudes in America are using to express rage and catharsis right now: dubstep. Yet, there’s a tangible menace to this beat — the subgenre’s signature, hard-partying drop refashioned to score Kanye’s provocative yelp about inner-city violence and Jay-Z rhyming about his criminal past and current “fuck you” success. Like his verse on “Welcome To The Jungle,” Jay flickers between two divergent paths — legal and illegal — and sometimes blurs the two. When he paints a scene at Las Vegas’ Wynn Casino, all eyes are on him. Because he’s a rapper or an uncouth drug dealer who doesn’t belong? Both, it seems. He’s in “all-white wearin’ no socks,” like a retired Jay of the next decade, but he also observes, “they know I’m a dope boy.”

The entire verse bounces between past and present, and as his rhymes pick up speed, the pressures of fame and memories of a past life rush out; synths whirl, sirens wail, and that Flux Pavillion sample stands up straight and collapses again and again, fitting the overdose of emotion. There’s a great moment where Jay tells engineer Noah Goldstein to “extend the beat” and you hear it rise back to life like a reanimated sci-fi robot, ready to stalk around for a little while longer. By the end, he’s reconciled his contradictions: “Street-smart and I’m book smart, could’ve been a chemist because I cook smart…”

Written by Brandon

August 24th, 2011 at 10:01 pm

Watch The Throne: “Welcome To The Jungle”

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Defacement (The Death Of Michael Stewart)”

A simple, abrasive beat that, every few bars, sounds like it’s about to malfunction, angrily pumps until a mournful synth enters the mix at the very moment Kanye shouts, “I asked her where she wanna be when she 25 / She turned around and looked at me and said ‘alive.’” He’s referencing OutKast’s “Da Art Of Storytellin Pt. 1,” and specifically, he’s referencing Andre 3000’s description of a scene from his teenage years, when Three Stacks talks about a young girl named Sasha Thumper who, when asked what she wants to be when she grows up answers, says, “alive,” throwing Andre for a loop (“I coulda died,” he admits).

Like the hook’s update of Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” (“It’s like a jungle sometimes…”), the somber hook of “Da Art Of Storytellin’ Pt. 1″ (“It’s like that now…”) is a clever, stiff-upper-lip twist on Run-D.M.C,’s state-of-the-nation rap “It’s Like That.” The Throne reference both songs here, employing socially conscious reality raps from the ’80s and ’90s to underline their point: Nothing has changed all that much. In his first verse, Jay implicates himself in “the jungle,” outlining losses early in his life (“My uncle died, my daddy did too”), while Kanye attempts to empathize, referencing the problems he’s mined for a few albums now (“Just when I thought I had everything, I lost it all”) and then, it’s right back to Jay who drops a fascinating virtuoso verse mixing street violence with “fame is fucked-up” freakouts…

Written by Brandon

August 24th, 2011 at 2:27 am

Watch The Throne: “That’s My Bitch”

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Mona Lisa”

Justin Vernon, stand the fuck up! His uncomfortably funky, mid-song part is so good. Anyway, ignore this song’s title, or don’t cringe as you read it, because the Throne are doing a “99 Problems”-like investigation of the word “bitch” here. Even the hook by Elly Jackson of La Roux, with its celebration of autonomy from the work-a-day grind, kicks against the lunkhead title and the Throne’s possessive, sorta-sensitive raps.

Jay-Z’s all twisted up, though, no longer able to simply admire a girl without getting upset about body image and the way white standards of beauty have been branded onto our brains. “Why all the pretty icons always all-white?” he asks, and then demands that we “put some colored girls in the MoMA,” shouting out a character from Good Times: “Half these broads ain’t got nothing on Willona.” Jay spends a lot of his time on “That’s My Bitch” making art references that may or may not click for a lot of rap listeners, so it’s refreshing to hear a nod to a classic black television show…

Written by Brandon

August 24th, 2011 at 2:15 am

Watch The Throne: “New Day”

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Asskiller”

Legacy and influence obviously matter a great deal to the Throne. That’s why there was all that hard-to-stomach, pre-release, we’re-making-history talk; and it’s also why Watch The Throne’s in a constant conversation with black music’s past. On “New Day,” however, Jay and Kanye approach the idea of legacy from a more down-to-earth perspective: How will they raise their kids? The genius of this song is not its concept, but how tasteful this quite-shticky song turns out to be.

Kanye views his future child — actually, the song’s conceit — as a chance to right his wrongs, because he can’t imagine or face the realities of raising a kid. He’s still growing up himself, and still stupidly upset about things that happened more than a year ago (or as long ago as five years ago). But he’s also still mourning the 2007 death of his mother, Donda West, which he can’t get over. The line, “And I’ll never let his mom move to L.A. / Knowin’ she couldn’t take the pressure, now we all pray,” which ends his verse, really stings. Also: Given the questionable fiscal ideals running through this album, Kanye’s quip about raising his child to be Republican (“so everybody know he love white people”) is worth highlighting. It’s also very funny…

Written by Brandon

August 19th, 2011 at 5:38 am

Watch The Throne: “Gotta Have It”


Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Five Thousand Dollars”

A James Brown sample is cast in the role of the Throne’s hypeman on “Gotta Have It,” cheering them on, and shouting over a classic Kanye chipmunked vocal and the Neptunes’ minimalist synth-funk. There’s been a lot of controversy about “Otis” being credited as “featuring Otis Redding” (Curtis Mayfield is similarly credited on bonus track “The Joy”), but Watch The Throne is, in part, an investigation of “black excellence” (Jay’s words), and the Throne position themselves in this continuum, so it’s only right that they treat these musical gods like peers.

The bar-for-bar, back-and-forth rapping, a tribute to not only old school hip-hop, is retrofitted to play out like a dramatic dialogue between Kanye and Jay-Z, which actually makes sense, given the Socrates shout-outs on “No Church In The Wild.” Kanye takes the lead, and Jay tags along, asking him questions (“Ain’t that where the Heat play?”), keeping the flow moving along. Halfway through, Jay steps up and enacts a scene where he threatens a guy who hasn’t paid his debts: “Wassup, motherfucker, where my money at? / You gon’ make me come down to your house where yo’ mummy at? / Mummy wrap the kids, have ‘em cryin’ for they mommy back.” It’s vicious, and shows just how easy this CEO/rap superstar can resurrect the anger and scrappy aggression of his past….

Written by Brandon

August 17th, 2011 at 5:07 pm

Watch The Throne: “Otis”


Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Red Kings”

“Otis,” which samples “Try a Little Tenderness,” features the Throne rapping Run-D.M.C.-style, and in the last verse, nods to Audio Two’s “Top Billin,” begins a mid-album suite of nostalgia-tinged production. The soul samples really get to breathe in this section (Nina Simone on “New Day,” James Brown on nearly every track) and all these rap-nerd details (quoting Raekwon’s “Incarcerated Scarfaces” on “New Day,” updating “The Message” on “Welcome to the Jungle,” using “Apache” on “That’s My Bitch”) ground WTT in hip-hop history and precedent. Given the album’s focus on black success and influence, this nostalgia trip is conceptually necessary.

Kanye’s masterful, sideways chopping of Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness,” reducing the Memphis legend to a loop of visceral grunts and hollers, references the soul-beat tradition that started the Throne’s friendship, while cleverly updating it, as well. When Jay-Z threatens, “Run up on ‘Ye, I might have to murk ya,” he’s also commenting on their relationship, reasserting that which hasn’t changed. Namely, that Jay was and is the heavy, and Kanye is the normal kid for whom violence was never a way of life. “Big brother” Jay’s still there to protect Kanye…

Written by Brandon

August 16th, 2011 at 9:37 pm

Watch The Throne: “Niggas In Paris”

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, “King Pleasure”

“This shit weird / We ain’t supposed to be here,” the usually cocksure Jay-Z confesses on “Niggas In Paris.” Being famous is indeed weird. But being black and famous is a special kind of weird and that’s the overarching theme of Watch The Throne. It’s a rarefied burden, yes, but not one to be dismissed, even if the album did drop on the day Wall Street farted out. WTT may be a musical event, but not because of its broad sonic palette (woah, dubstep!) or because two rapping superstars told you so months ago, but because it bites off more than it really needs to chew.

Think about it this way: Watch The Throne, which is about blackness and responsibility and the grimy American dream, is probably gonna be the second biggest album of the year. It could’ve been 12 tracks of “H.A.M.” but instead you don’t even get one “H.A.M.” That lumpy epic is relegated to a bonus track. Let’s start with Jay and Kanye titling this song “Niggas In Paris,” which speaks to a W.E.B. DuBois-ian “double consciousness” that permeates much of the album…

Written by Brandon

August 16th, 2011 at 7:02 pm