The problem with Kanye West and Watch the Throne (and why context matters)

Bitches, boasting, Benzes, bullets: one of the biggest quandaries facing white, hipster hip-hop fans is rappers’ propensity to talk about themselves, their guns, their money, and their cars, all whilst talking shit about other rappers, talking shit about women, and just plain shit talking. It can be tiring for this humble, white listener, who considers himself something of a feminist. But I think I, and, by extension, my white hipster brethren, give Jay-Z a pass because of the “authenticity” thing.

The major challenge facing the collaboration that makes up Watch the Throne is that I extend no such courtesy to Kanye West.

Here’s where Jay-Z gets his cred: Hove comes from the streets, and has lifted himself up. It’s Horatio Alger from the corner, and he can’t forget his past. So even though he is married, in his 40s, and likely spends most of his time pulling business deals, we can overlook the fact that you’d never know it listening to his lyrics these days because he’s from the hood.

Then there’s Kanye. His dad was a photojournalist. His mom was a professor. He got A’s and B’s in high school in a middle class neighborhood in Chicago. And he almost certainly lacks any semblance of self-awareness. So besides sounding like a spoiled frat boy when he raps about drugs and cars, he also happens to cast himself as a pompous douche.

That being said, I kind of consider him to be the Quentin Tarentino of the hip-hop world — undoubtedly talented, undoubtedly arrogant, but a little stiff. Both Kanye and QT are obviously obsessed with their craft, taking in copious volumes of information and spitting it back out. But along those lines, it frequently feels like Kanye the rapper (like Quarentino the screenwriter) just follows the hip-hop playbook, reaching out into the ether and pasting together various affectations and tropes (casual misogyny, self-aggrandizement, religious imagery, shout-outs to his momma).

But unlike Tarantino, Kanye works in a medium that largely redeems itself from a content standpoint only because it claims to portray “real life.”

And that brings me to my nut graf. I approached Watch the Throne with some trepidation. I am a late arrival to the Kanye West party; while I’ve always appreciated his extreme talent as a producer (he lifted up The Blueprint, no doubt), his albums are unfortunately full of him rapping. Kanye’s mic skills are just weak. Juxtaposing him next to the greatest living rapper, I thought, would expose him for the mediocre MC that he is.

I was kind of right, and kind of wrong, actually. Kanye surprisingly holds his own as a rapper, sort of, on this album. On “Ni**** in Paris,” one of the West’s standout takes on a reasonably conventional mid-tempo hip-hop track, his nasal, singsong voice actually fits into the flow of the song after Jay-Z tags him in, and he actually mixes up his rhyming pattern once in awhile.

There’s a lot for a fan of either artist to enjoy on this album, and the first few tracks are strong (“No Church in the Wild” is a killer opener). Thanks to Kanye’s trademark eclecticism and a bevy of guest producers, Watch the Throne dabbles in West Coast hip-hop, rock, soul, classical and club music, and dubstep. But it lacks the cohesion of Kanye’s albums, production-wise, for some reason. This album is uneven.

From a delivery standpoint, Jay-Z and Kanye aren’t the next rap supergroup by any means. But maybe they’ve rubbed off on each other a little. In contrast to The Blueprint, on which a young Kanye submitted to Jay-Z’s overall vision, Jay-Z on Watch the Throne lyrically adapts some of Kanye’s flavor: obsession with emulating a rockstar, rapping about his elite social status, cocaine, and European stuff. (“The Black Axl Rose,” Jay-Z calls himself at one point.)

But just because he exceeded my low expectations as a rapper, that doesn’t mean Kanye avoided the things that makes a large part of me lukewarm to Kanye West’s music (just for the record, another part loves it).

On “Gotta Have It” (co-produced by The Neptunes, by the way), Kanye and Jay-Z trade back and forth about how they will raise their as-of-now non-existent sons. And actually now that I think about it, that’s one of the few similarities between Jay-Z and Kanye as MCs – both will occasionally slip an introspective, self-critical verse or track into the typical hip-hop braggadocio (Jay-Z’s are occasionally incisive and thought-provoking, while Kanye generally seems like a robot executing some kind of self-reflection program). Still, it seems like a reasonably appropriate subject with some promise. Kanye leads off:

And I’ll never let my son have an ego / he’ll be nice to everyone wherever we go / I mean, I might even make ‘em be Republican
/ So everybody know he love white people.

Ok, so far so good, and a little funny in that Kanye West, cultural/political non-sequitur kind of way. But wait, was that an obtuse reference to Kanye’s big dumb Katrina fail? Well. It’s kind of vague I guess. But hold the phone. About a half-couplet later:

And get caught up with the groupies in the whirlwind /
And I’ll never let ‘em ever hit the telethon / 
I mean even if people dyin’ and the world ends /
See, I just want him to have an easy life.

Oh no he didn’t.

Reflecting on Hurricane Katrina, Kanye West, who in a later track “Murder to Excellence,” laments black on black crime.

In the past if you picture events like a black tie / What’s the last thing you expect to see: a black guy / What’s the life expectancy for black guys? / The system’s working effectively, that’s why.

And so it rings hollow when Kanye tries to follow Jay-Z’s lead in ruminating on the downtrodden state of African-Americans. While Hove has personal experiences to reflect upon, Kanye raps from the perspective of a middle-class egomaniac. Nothing illustrates this better when in Kanye’s mind, apparently, the biggest victim of Hurricane Katrina (which killed or displaced literally thousands of black people) is himself, because he’s just so damn misunderstood.

That’s the problem with Kanye West, and with Watch the Throne. And it’s a big, almost fatal problem.

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2 comments

  1. This was fantastically written, and also right on target. While Kanye West’s production is always stunning, his actual rapping leaves me feeling unsatisfied. It’s never been the rhymes that make critics drool over his CDs.

    (Remember me? We met when we sorted clothes at the Goodwill for Otterbein. I’ve heard so much about you since then from Dr. W. and Lindsey.)

    Like

  2. Thanks for reading Mike. It’s not just that Kanye’s rapping leaves me unsatisfied. It’s that it consistently annoys/infuriates me. And that’s when it’s not boring. (Although on the bright side, Kanye’s lyrics can be funny/clever.)

    I don’t remember you very well, but I do remember meeting you at the Goodwill thing. Glad to see you have gotten involved with OC journalism.

    Like

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