Have you ever made a gold picture frame? The kind that costs a few hundred bucks an inch? I have. They look fucking rich, right? Those ornate, spandrels wrapped around your piece of art should seem ostentatious enough; adding a layer of gold, of course, nudges a rich piece into decadence. The interesting thing about making gold frames, though, is that, besides wood, they’re mostly made of dirt. Well, gesso. The most ostentatious, flashy gold frame (the original rim?) is made of sweat and dirty clay silt, with the thinnest application of gold. The gold comes from a packet that looks like a pack of rolling papers. Each leaf of it is about as thin as a blue Rizla.
Watch The Throne brings the image of a fine frame to my mind: an ornate gold surface laying over humble gesso and arthritis-inducing craft. It’s as stupid-flashy as it is delicate, with a bit of precariousness thrown in. It’s as pointless as all that. A frame, rather than a picture, need not be taken as art. As the cover of Watch The Throne may imply, Jay-Z and Kanye have substituted the frame for the picture:
So if we’re being really serious, it would seem that Watch The Throne is too ostentatious. (By how much? It’s probably impossible to say.) Chuck D, of course, makes some good points. Watch The Throne is too ostentatious by exactly as much as the extent of its complicity with a society that’s never been shy about ignoring the rampant systemic oppression, degradation, and destruction of black men and women. Touré, on the other hand, also makes a good point when he makes the case for confidence rap, saying, “I’m all in favor of Black men having bravado and brandishing their outlandish self-esteem, given that there seems to be a multimillion-dollar multimedia campaign to destroy Black self-esteem”.
There seems to be a bit of a posture (better put: a slouch) of populist derision aimed at Watch The Throne. Why are two multi-millionaires, the first- and third-highest rap earners of the year, with a combined income of $53 million making a collaborative album to, seemingly, just rub our noses in their affluence?
It’s funny that no one ever asks, say, Josh Beckett how he can be such a callous asshole, going out there night after every five nights, taunting us with his $17 million salary. ($1 million more than Kanye’s.) What about Todd Phillips (of Hangover and Hangover 2 writing/directing/producing fame) and his $35 million year—equal to Jay-Z’s? We all knew Hangover 2 was a quick snatch at the cash, and that it sucked, but who could blame him? The money was there for the taking.
Imagine, someone working at their chosen profession in order to be successful, to make money. Christ, what an asshole.
Well, so, ok. I’m not going to beat around the philosophical bush: what is the point of doing anything? Like, really?
Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.
Seems about right: intention is shown by the action, except when ‘we’ find those actions gross, in conflict with our expectations. I guess we shouldn’t expect rappers to rap or producers to produce. Especially if they’ve shown a good knack for it. Especially if they’re successful. Especially if they’re ambitious. And if they are making music, then maybe they should just keep it to themselves. It always cracks me up more than one person at the internet’s most intelligent music site thought Kanye should have kept 808s and Heartbreak to himself.
I don’t really have any patience for anyone dismissing out of hand the creation of art. (No OFmo.) Watch The Throne is clearly not a bullet-proof condom for Jay’s and Ye’s creative, say, urge. It’s crass, ugly, over the top. It’s, you know, fucking music. Rap music. Rap music made by Jay-Z and Kanye West—have you heard of them before? It sounds like a Jay-Z and Kanye West collaboration. Watch The Throne sounds like the best, hardest-trying collaboration you could imagine coming from the two. It’s not some literally or figuratively phoned in, rewarmed, or digitally-swapped LDR piece of shit mixtape. It sounds like music made by a couple of people who are good at making music. Grown-up music. (Amazing that it took some people to actually fucking try to maybe suggest it’s a good idea for musicians to make music together, in studio. God, I hope this becomes a trend.)
So, in a few words, Watch The Throne sounds like the sort of album that would follow My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Like, literally. Can we get much higher? Yeah, we can.
Before I crack a thousand words, I just want to say that this is going long. It’s not tight. Watch The Throne is surprisingly kind of tight with its own internal logic, but it’s also pretty rangy. This essay is going to be rangy. I guess that’s the benefit of not filing at a major magazine/paper/blog. My editor at B Michael Tumblr fucking loves the piece already, but he’s telling me to get to talking about the music.
It’s like Kanye’s name was designed to sort of rhyme with “conflict”, which is fitting because duh. It might seem like conflict particularly follows Kanye around, but that’s shortsighted: internal conflict is a natural way of people. Ever since we learned to internalize the strophe and antistrophe, the seat of tragedy has been in the unreconciled and divided self. The sort of emotional, cognitive, and epistemological limitations inherent in being a person have basically been the impetus behind all of art and philosophy up until right now.
A brand of nihilism concerning knowledge certainly underlies deconstruction, which a little important to talk about, but just for a few sentences.
The crux of deconstruction, as I understand it, is that seat of meaning is always already empty: A “red” shirt is “red” because it’s “not not-red”, right? The, say, spirit of meaning that enlivens the word does not originate from the word itself. Put another way: when someone says something, a lot of times what they mean isn’t so much in what they’re saying; the meaning is what’s unsaid. Which all is why I’m having such a hard time constructing an in-principle dismissive reading 1 of Watch The Throne based on the price tags of objects mentioned therein. Like, the album is about wealth. But it’s also kind of not about wealth, you know? Seeing a pair of really rich dudes rapping about Margiela jackets and Murciélagos is not actually about wealth. It’s about the crushing poverty that basically literally everybody else experiences. Anyway, we’ll get there.
Like a lot of folks, I won’t even pretend to care about what Jay-Z has been up to. The last time I thought about him, I believe I compared his new website to the Blueprint III, and I couldn’t decide which was worse. That said, I don’t find anything he’s done on Watch The Throne to be terrible, and some of it is great. The opening of Watch The Throne is not one of the great parts.
Before Jay comes in, ersatz angel Frank Ocean leads off the album with some limp heraldry. (It looks like I’ll just have to accept that he’s been pre-approved for a bunch of critical credit.) Ok, now we’re off with Jay: “Tears on the mausoleum floor / Blood stains the coliseum doors / Lies on the lips of a priest / Thanksgiving disguised as a feast”. Mike Skinner might be 45th generation Roman, but Jay has no claim to the historical thrust of tarnished opulence he’s grasping at. His whole first verse is like Lady Gaga’s “Judas”, a bunch of images and references kind of artlessly arranged into, charitably, a pseudo-referential web.
(Jay does throw out an interesting question, though, when he asks, “Is Pious pious cause God loves pious?” This line of inquiry actually fits in with one of the album’s main thematic preoccupations: “What exactly constitutes the good life? (Show your work.)” The question also relates to the later “Made In America”, which (rightly? ironically?) links up the greatness of America—and by “greatness”, I probably mean something like “the validity and inherent goodness of the rags-to-riches, up-by-bootstraps narrative”—with the greatness of God.) Taken together, Jay’s indication that Virtue begs the question of its own virtue might serve to destabilize the perhaps over-Christianized notion of American exceptionalism. But we’ll return to that idea in a few (quite a few) moments.
Kanye steps up to the plate in “No Church In The Wild”, not to paint pictures, but to trace some of the more sordid aspects of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: cocaine, threesomes, and cheating.
(Nb, Kanye literally drops some science with that cocaine-zebra line.)
Anyway, the cheating part, in particular, comes in a telling line: “No sins as long as there’s permission / And deception is the only felony”, which serves to conflate holy law with secular law, showing us, I guess, that there is no sin (and therefore no grace) in a state of nature. Again, if we’re assuming that capital-V Virtue is groundless and (importantly) therefore invalid, then we’re graceless—beholden to law but not a higher power. Therefore the title of the track. Moreover, the track sets up the narrative arc (as it were) of Watch The Throne, delineating the alpha point of origin of the rap duo as gods on earth, among the powerful (but landbound) sphinxes and flaming swords outside of Eden.
The next song, “Lift Off” makes the logical progression from secular gods to technical masters of the universe. From Prometheus to Richard Branson, brazen, drunk on power, man’s turned to the stars as the ultimate flex-nuts destination. Jay’s verse, “Rappers hear watch the throne / They gon be pissed off / Earth is boring to em / Shit is making my dick soft” is kind of hilarious in the context of Big Boi’s arrest for Viagra possession, and it also recalls a story about Hunter Thompson riding in the cockpit of a plane buzzing the New York skyline. The song’s probably most intriguing in light of NASA’s completion of the space shuttle program. The song is kind of like Solaris, super futuristic in a really obviously dated way. The space shuttle program’s demise is the first (or second, counting the allusion to the Coliseum) of many importantly self-conflicted symbols, evincing waning power, the stomach-drop feeling of the precipitous descent after an ever-seeming uptick.
Sonically, the track’s emphatically uplifting. Kanye, Mike Dean, et al. have completely mastered the use of insanely motivating horns in their productions. And while the song is also symbolically essential, it’s also kind of empty. (Maybe like the moon? Really important for vague reasons, great to behold, generally impressive, but not, you know, really that important.) “Lift Off” is also the first of many songs to boast a sweet coda. And, of course, Beyoncé kills it.
“Ni**as In Paris”, which I’ll assume does not stand for “Ninjas In Paris”, samples the Will Ferrell/Napoleon Dynamite film Blades of Glory, which I haven’t seen and about which I have no clue. (The more I hear the samples, though, the more I genuinely enjoy hearing them.) It’s an otherwise impressively high-tech song, and one of the most important songs on the album. I kind of wish the drums in the first part were bigger, but I understand why they’re not, since the anemic bass drums make the mid-song breakdown sound just fucking ridiculously awesome. Jay’s verse has the album’s first Michael Jackson reference (though you can pick among Jackson, Tyson, and Jordan—no mention of Michael Vick or Michelangelo, which latter omission honestly surprised me). Kanye’s first verse, about getting married at the mall, is such a classic Kanye image combining religious ceremony with commerce with bathroom sex. Classic Kanye, Kanye.
When the breakdown does occur, Ye let’s loose by saying, “You are now watching the throne / Don’t let me get in my zone”. Not sure what we were doing for the previous twelve minutes, but this part reads like a definitive Kanye Moment. He’s all “Don’t let me enter my zone,” and then he’s like “I’m definitely in my zone”; you couldn’t stop him! Witness is forced upon us. We’re forced to watch the throne, and forced to let Kanye enter his zone.
I feel like the importance of this moment cannot be overstated. What’s originally presented as a choice, or at least something you can exercise a bit of control over, is revealed to be an eventuality. Choice is offered, then obviated, all owing to Kanye’s proximity to the throne. The message is clear. Those at the top will present those at the bottom with the illusion of control, but those on bottom have none.
I guess “Otis” is being called Watch The Throne’s first single, though I have a lot of love for “H.A.M.”. “Otis” is a badass song, for sure, but Jay’z parts are pretty goofy. I can never tell if his opening lines about inventing swag are supposed to be, then, proved by his prior putting supermodels into cabs, or if the proof is when he just says, “I guess I got my swagger back”. Seems kind of question begging to me. Jay’s second verse, which he ends saying, “Flee in the G450, I might surface / Political refugee asylum can be purchased / Uh, everything’s for sale / I got five passports, I’m never goin’ to jail” lands a peculiarly ominous thud seeing as how DSK was 1) unable to escape the country, despite his station (and mere single passport, one assumes); but 2) totally able to beat back any rape charges by, in part, engaging some really nasty racist shit. If I were Jay, I wouldn’t want anything I said to even remotely compare myself to DSK. I guess that’s why I’m not Jay, though.
The crux (or at least, the most interesting part, to me) of “Otis” lies in Kanye’s second verse. 2 Ye says, “I made ‘Jesus Walks’, I’m never goin’ to hell / Couture-level flow, it’s never going on sale / Luxury rap, the Hermes of verses”, which is an interesting look at 1) redemption, 2) class, and, maybe, 3) Greek mythology. The idea of singing your way into the afterlife is old: Orpheus sang his way into hell, someone’s got to stock those angelic choirs, and there’s that old Song of Songs. Kanye kind of inverts the idea, though he’s probably got the more traditional-minded idea of salvation in mind. In either case, it’s curious that the same man who’s painfully conscious of his own sordidness and sin should think writing one song about Jesus would get him some sort of plenary indulgence. On the other hand, the culture-makers and masters of the universe have always thought they had an inside track to heaven. The idea of “luxury rap” is, well, amazingly well-suited to the time. Given that luxury goods are one of the few industries to dodge the recession, you’d think luxury rap would do similarly well. But the charts, like Jesus, are staunchly powered by populism. The top 1% could keep the economy afloat if they gave a flaming fuck, but they’re not going to all buy ten copies of Watch The Throne. The album will assuredly sell well for a week or two, but I don’t think it’s going to be a longterm money maker like a Hermès whatever-it-is-they-make. Still, the line about Hermes just tickles me, since I’m a big fan of Hermes the Greek god. The “Hermes of verses” is actually fucking brilliant phrase, since Hermes was the messenger of the gods, zipping to and fro with the word. (That he also bailed out Odysseus-v-Circe by finding the clever Achaean some Moly (as in “holy moly”) (as in the only instance of the word in Greek literature) is one of my favorite images in Greek myth.)
Overall, then, I like “Otis”, the soulful centerpiece of the album’s ascendant first third. The final part of Watch The Throne’s first series, “Gotta Have It”, finally adds race to the mix. It runs from the opening salvo of “Hello white America, assassinate my character”, past a Ferris Bueller reference, to the extended metaphor of Jay/Ye equals LeBron and Dwyane Wade. (Nb, you won’t ever convince me that the seemingly universal hatred of this past year’s Heat wasn’t consciously or unconsciously motivated by race. Even Bill Simmons, who god knows I used to like, and whom now I kind of consider to be something of a #racewar bomb-lobber, constantly acknowledges the racial tension that has or still does keep the league down—while ignoring the racial component in all the vitriol heaped on the Heat.) The second half of the song has that terrible (terrible) Jay-Z line about planking on millions, which kind of obscures the “blacks on blacks on blacks” part about riding around Bedford Ave., which, you know I’ve had occasion to wander around Bed-Stuy, and that neighborhood is still pretty fucking racially segregated. In any case, “Gotta Have It” is six parts acquisitive, half a dozen about race.
It also occurs to me to say, since I seem to be kind of formlessly, you know, saying things, that it might just be an accident of the James Brown sample, but that tap sound accompanying it sounds like the beat of a metronome, suggesting Jay/Ye’s perceived mastery over time. Yeah, that’s something I thought of listening to Watch The Throne.
“New Day” is a low-key stand-out, a word of advice from the rappers to their would-be kids. It begins with a pretty funny (“funny”) joke where Kanye says he might make his son be a Republican, “So everybody know he love white people”. (Ouch, Republicans. But you know that’s true.) That’s a pretty marked difference from Lil Wayne’s whole, tired “Black Republican” schtick, which was purely image with no substance. 3 It’s also kind of funny that part of Ye’s advice is for his son not to look for love in a strip club, since that seems somewhat obvious in this post-Showgirls era. 4 There are some poignant moments. When Ye says, “And I’ll never let his mom move to L.A. / Knowin’ she couldn’t take the pressure now we all pray”, it’s got to choke him up. (Seeing as how his mom died in Los Angeles after failed cosmetic surgery.) Jay’s evocation of “black bar mitzvahs” serves to combine the album’s (soon to be) ever-present notion of race with an image of growing mature in the knowledge of your difference. The “mazel tov, mogul talk” line is meant to express isolation from the wider world while serving as a springboard from which to conquer it.
The ode to children is something of a calm before the onslaught of “That’s My Bitch”, “Welcome To The Jungle”, and “Who Gon Stop Me”. All three go so hard.
The first of them has the line “I paid for them titties, get your own”, which is, honestly, utterly perplexing. You know, seeing as how, in the song directly prior, Ye sort of mourns the death of his mom (from, in part, breast reduction surgery). It’s certainly a strong move to not give enough fucks to say a thing like that. But: the very next line is “It ain’t safe in the city, watch the throne”. Watch the throne, indeed. The first time Ye told us to watch the throne, he slipped inevitably, implacably into his zone. It seems that his zone is the one where he gives no fucks. It’s a flow state of nihilism. If Dwyane Wade’s job were scoring on women instead of overmatched 1s and 2s, he’d be in this zone, too. It’s also the sort of flow state that those on top get into, when they disregard social convention, conventional morality, the rule of law, and the already abandoned rule of a higher power—all to get to the throne.
“That’s My Bitch”, fittingly, is killed by Jay rather than Ye. 5 He sounds motivated when he says,
Picasso was alive he woulda made her
That’s right ni*a, Mona Lisa can’t fade her
I mean Marilyn Monroe, she’s quite nice
But why all the pretty icons always all-white?
Put some colored girls in the MOMA
Half these broads ain’t got nothing on Willona
Don’t make me bring Thelma in it
Bring Halle, bring Penelope and Selma in it
Back to my Beyoncé, you deserve three stacks word to Andre
Call Larry Gagosian, you belong in museums
You belong in vintage clothes crushing the whole building.*
Besides saying something nice about his wife, Jay really does ask a pertinent question: “why all the pretty icons always all-white?” Sort of approaching it from the flip side of “the price go down if she ever fuck a black guy”, here. I suppose I’d note, here, that Rob Harvilla’s SPIN review of the album has a line, “(Jay-Z is now just reeling off the names of famous painters to impress you — clearly someone bought him a MoMA membership)” may be just as insulting as Moby’s tweet. I mean, this is exactly the sort of shit he’s talking about: People assume a black person isn’t interested in art? Cracking jokes about Jay going to the MoMa? What’s next, making fun of a person of color for going to the library? I thought you people were all illiterate. Shameful.
Anyway, the verse also, I think, helps elucidate that video for “Monster”, which runs roughly along racial lines of monster-izing people of color and killing white women. Not only was the video a “piece of art”, but it also subverted society’s impulse to turn white women into art, by utterly objectifying them. The women of color were alive (and monsters) because they’re always outside the world of art.
“Welcome To The Jungle” has, like, a twenty-years-too-late sort of conceit. The beat is kind of annoying. Its best line—”I look in the mirror / My only opponent”—is unoriginal. And who ever would want to be the “black Axl Rose”, for real? I mean, I don’t think Axl Rose even wants to be Axl Rose anymore.
OK, so for my money, “Who Gon Stop Me” is the dead center of the album, its most important song. (Though not its best.) It starts memorably, of course, “This is something like the Holocaust”. It’s a shocking, kind of stupid line, but it doesn’t get elucidated until halfway through when Kanye says,
Heard “Yeezy was racist”
Well, I guess that’s on one basis
I only like green faces
This is something like the Holocaust
Millions of our people lost
The song starts with a seeming social argument about millions dying, presumably millions of black people dying in a targeted, systemic manner, which, by the way, is exactly true. But with this middle verse, Kanye reveals a sort of double meaning of “holocaust”: the millions who are dying are also dollars, “green faces”, money. The present, ongoing, global recession is a holocaust for capital. It’s a holocaust for the rich, for the folks rocking the throne. This song is the core of the album because it finally, tragically loses sight of the one thing that’s redeemed Jay’s and Ye’s music: their social consciousness. (Each, in his own way.) Their concern has finally slipped from people of color to people of the color of money. The only black they care about are “black cards, black cars”. When Ye says, “Bow our heads and pray to the lord / Til I die I’mma fuckin ball”, it’s a real golden calf moment. It’s a prayer to the secular gods of “No Church In The Wild”, to the technological superiority of “Lift Off”. But technological superiority in the form of complex derivatives and quants is what caused this “holocaust”. It’s a breathtaking high/low point of the album, with a rising, crashing beat 6 to match.
Then again, all respect to Chuck D (see above), why does music made by black people necessarily have to do with predominantly black concerns? I understand why rap tends to be socially conscious, but there’s not an expectation for “white art” to deal with white concerns. Mostly because “white concerns” just are “concerns” for the general public. But I guess that’s my point: always expecting music by black rappers to express a social concern always already limits their artistic voice. I mean, if Jay were to get wiped out by a Madoff scheme, he couldn’t write a song about it? This sort of expectation—or its opposite, that rap music about affluence is inherently terrible—seems to be gross and self-serving for people with an interest in keeping other people down. I’m not saying people put off by the opulence of Watch The Throne are racist. I am saying that there are always people who seem to have an interest in people of color occupying a low station in life, and their reach in culture is what’s called systemic oppression or cultural hegemony.
After that orgy of success, “Murder To Excellence” isn’t the palate cleanser we want, but it’s the one we probably deserve. After “Who Gon Stop Me“‘s complete and utter moral breakdown, we’re served up a bleak song that, as the title sort of backwards-implies, finds redemption in tragedy. This time around, “all black everything” doesn’t refer to the color of Maybachs, Amex cards, or tuxes. It refers to people. When Jay says, “I’m out here fightin’ for you / Don’t increase my stress load / Ni**as watchin’ the throne / Very happy to be / Power to the people / When you see me, see you”, he’s trying to invert the prior use of “the throne”. If, previously, we watched the throne out of fear, to see from where the latest economic shocks and beatings would issue, now we watch it because of its spectacle. The throne now has a tentpole effect of bringing people together, one nation, under Jay and Ye, to be awed and entertained. Power puffs itself up, leading to the next Jay verse, which is about “Black tie, black Maybachs / Black excellence, opulence, decadence”. It seems like the throne hasn’t learned anything from the previous song’s orgy of excess. Incidentally, when Jay makes a Silence of the Lambs reference, well, I was happy because, for some reason, Jodie Foster’s Agent Starling is also my go-to reference for being poor and being pained over it.
When Ye jumps in, he sort of ties it all together (albeit in a pat and familiar way): “In the past if you picture events like a black tie / What the last thing you expect to see, black guys / What’s the life expectancy for black guys? / The system’s working effectively, that’s why”. American acquisitiveness, the always-hunger, is a necessity because it is an aberration. It upsets the predominantly white social order. When the system’s working well, black men and youths are massively, structurally fucked. Working hard, hustling hard, making money, and so on—none of those are new concepts; they’re neither new to rap music or as cultural ideals, in general. That doesn’t diminish the power of Jay’s and Ye’s super baroque rap, as both a method or an image. It’s why Jay-Z’s “Life and Times” will always be less repugnant than “GOOP”, and why it’s disgusting when critics dismissing rap music as simple-minded, ostentatious bragging.
You could simply erase Watch The Throne’s validity as the hollow expression of some super rich dufuses. And that’s kind of fine, I guess. Personally, I find Kristmas’s W-2 Boy to do a lot of what Watch The Throne does, but better (and from the other direction). And let me be clear: Watch The Throne does not make any sort of coherent social argument. It’s not an essay in song cycle form. It doesn’t even have the upside-down parabola narrative shape of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. What it does, though, is make a sort of impressionistic vision of two rich black men, which, I suppose, is all it’s ever supposed to have been.
The album is varied, and certainly does not present a static image or tableau. Even if forward (and backward) movement comes in stops and starts, there is movement. And, beside the obvious palliatives of wealth, I really think the album’s ubiquitous message of “all black everything”, and Jay and Kanye’s emphasis 7 on “black tie” is not just a status or style thing. 8 Black tie is the perfect evocation of the morass where race and class come together. Black tie is the one instance where “black” necessarily equals “good”, and not just “rich”. You can pretend it’s just about money, or that it’s just about race, but you’d be wrong. Being a profoundly human effort, Watch The Throne is, from start to end, conflicted.
If America is no longer the city upon a hill, it still has pretentions to be. When an aggressively well-to-do album like Watch The Throne occurs, you can look for the meaning behind it, or you can say it’s not pertinent to you. Never mind that it cost $1.07 million to make a forgetable song like Rihanna’s “Man Down”. See, everything costs an astronomical amount of money to the average person. Even buying a Maybach is a pretty poor idea if you want to hold onto your wealth. (Warren Buffet would have you, like, buy some mattress stores or something—a lot less sexy.) It seems to me that the significance of Watch The Throne is primarily as an expression of social art, and then secondarily as an object to be made because it could, as an expression of pure will. It seems you could look at it in terms, as I sort of said above, of some people just doing their jobs, as well. There are a lot of things going on in Watch The Throne, most of which I feel I’ve missed.
I don’t particularly like the last two songs. Since I said I’d say more about “Made In America”, I will. I never get tired of hearing Kanye’s life story, which is a good attribute for a dye in the wool Kanye fan to possess. His story of being a top shelf producer who happens to rap is a sort of especially American-seeming story. Especially coming from Chicago, he’s like Augie March with purpose. (He’s unlike Augie March because Kanye’s not the worst.) It’s a little incongruous to hear 1) Frank Ocean (of all people?) singing the names of historical black luminaries while 2) Kanye tells his story of fashion blogging, and then 3) Jay talks about dealing drugs under his grandma’s nose. Still, the beat is enchanting, and I wish this were the last song. That’s probably a little too convenient, though.
“Why I Love You” is not a great song to go out on, but it’s not terrible. It has the last instances of the album’s titular conceit:
Picture if you will
That the throne was burning
Rome was burning
And I’m sitting in the corner all alone burning
Why does it always end up like this?
Something that we don’t determine
Besides evoking an image of himself as Nero, Jay also makes a lot of Christly comparisons (“I’ll be fly when Easter’s over”). But he delivers his first verse with conviction, so whatever. It makes an interesting sort of argument, that the throne has sort of been destroyed by society (by the plebeians in society, it seems to me), but Jay, himself, will transcend. He (and his throne) are like the Jesus or Rome, destroyed but ready to be reborn over and over again. It’s a fairly chilling picture of self-deluded self-idolatry. The whole song, basically, is Jay admonishing folks for not following his teachings, and forgiving them for their ignorance. It’s a good overview of how the powerful grant an inherently inferior sense of personhood to the lower classes. Their whole character is characterized by imperfection and ignorance. When Kanye says toward the end, “A ni**a gotta watch the throne”, it’s hard to tell if he means a person in general has to watch the throne, or a black man has to; the first is obvious, sort of, and the second is vaguely more progressive. In either case, the song has the swagger of a wife beater, forgiving society for having the gall to try to upturn a social order that keeps most of society in poverty. It’s as fine a way to close out Watch The Throne as there is.
I don’t have much to say in conclusion. I feel like I’ve said everything I have to say about Watch The Throne. I’ve listened to the album about twenty times since it came out: working, writing, riding the subway, walking the dogs, reading. I guess I could have gone to the MoMa and listened to it, and I would have gotten a little extra special meaning. Overall, I have a lot of feelings about Kanye West, as you may know. (If you’ve read this far, I’ll assume you’re a friend of mine, or my mother, in which case it’s a good bet you already know I like Kanye.) What I didn’t want to do is just make a bunch of broad observations or generalizations based on my memories or previous thoughts about him. That’s why I tried to go through, basically song by song, the entire album. Watch The Throne is the sort of album that seems like it will hold up under the weight of a lot of thinking and writing. The outsized personalities and histories of Jay and Ye lend themselves to mythology, and their constant grappling with the lies, promises, and mythology of America, of course, call for a lot of thinking. I’m extremely happy with Watch The Throne. It’s not exactly the cultural, moral, or aesthetic onslaught that was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But it’s (ostensibly) opulent assault seems uncannily well-timed. Even if you kind of hate what the duo stands for, what they’re saying, or how many 0s there are in their bankrolls, you would probably admit that this is a perfect time for a discussion about all those things.
Independent record labels are going to be running out of stock soon because of riots set off by the police murder of a black man. Not to be too reductive or try to tie things up too finely, but that’s as powerful an image as you could ask for. Race and money are destroying music, but not the music of a major label like Sony. It’s just poignant and sad and also angering. Watch The Throne is one way to express those feelings, and one of its true strengths is that it let me write this essay, which is another way.