The deluxe edition of Watch the Throne, Jay-Z and Kanye West's long-awaited collaboration is an hour and seven minutes of gold-plated social commentary. And I mean that literally: the packaging is made from gold mylar, unfolds into a cross and is embossed with images by Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci. The opening track likens Kanye to Jesus (again) and includes the chorus, "What's a king to a god? / What's a god to a non-believer." The other 15 songs are replete with similar references to religion, wealth and status. (Kanye, on "Otis": "Last week I was in my other other Benz." Jay-Z on "Ni--as in Paris": "What's 50 grand to a motherf--er like me?"). At first the blatant opulence seems discordant, especially considering Watch the Throne's release coincided with the Dow Jones average's worst single-day performance since December 2008. (I don't even want to know how much it costs to sample Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness.")
But dig deep into Throne, past the bacchanal celebration of the finer things in life, and you'll find the album's heart: two men grappling with what it means to be successful and black in a nation that still thinks of them as second class.
The finest example of this is "Murder to Excellence," which compares the murder rate in Chicago to the death toll in Iraq. Jay-Z raps about Black Panther member Fred Hampton, killed in a police raid in 1969, and about Danroy Henry, a 20-year-old Pace University student who was shot outside a Pleasantville, NY bar by police in October 2010. "Is it genocide?" Kanye muses, "Cause I can still hear his mama cry." The song isn't angry and it isn't accusatory. It just seeks to catalog what's happening in urban communities ("The paper read murder / black-on-black murder" runs the chorus) and to understand why it seems like the violence will never stop.
Then there is the bittersweet "Made in America," on which the rappers tell their life stories in verse Kanye recalls his mother's insistence that he go to school, Jay-Z praises his grandmother's banana pudding which Frank Ocean weaves together through his mournful tribute to "Sweet King Martin" and "Sweet Queen Coretta" in the chorus. This is an anthem about making it to the top in America, but the rappers' stories are so specific that the emphasis of the song following right on the heels of "Murder to Excellence" seems to be not on commercial triumph but individual luck. After all, not everyone can grow up to be Jay-Z.
Kanye and Jay-Z, unsurprisingly, can get a lot of their phone calls returned in the music business, and the guest talent on the album represents a prodigious pair of Rolodexes: Swizz Beats, The RZA, Q-Tip, and of course Beyoncè, who carries the poppy, synth-heavy "Lift Off" towards all-but-inevitable radio play. But despite the star performances, Throne ultimately feels like a partnership; the work of just two rappers. Kanye and Jay-Z recorded the album in hotel rooms in Paris, Los Angeles and New York. They announced (and subsequently unannounced) at least five release dates. And although three tracks made their way to the Internet early (two on purpose), the album is the first major-label megaproject in years that didn't leak in its entirety ahead of time.
Kanye and Jay-Z's Watch the Throne tour has already been rescheduled once so far, and there are rumors of disagreements between the rappers that may delay it further. Kanye's comments at England's Big Chill festival last weekend comparing himself to Hitler even threatened to overshadow the album's release. But a listen of Throne is enough to drown out the haters. What could have been a forgettable mishmash or, considering the egos involved, a bombastic vanity project, is instead a beautifully decadent album by two of hip-hop's finest artists men with a lot of things to say and a lot of money to spend. And as Kanye explains in the opening track, "We probably spend it all 'cause the pain ain't cheap."