‘Watch the Throne’ Is a Collaborative Album That Redirected Mainstream Hip-Hop
Note: originally published Aug. 8, 2016
What's a king to a god, you ask? Well, if you're talking in terms of the current hip-hop hierarchy, that question was answered when Jay Z and Kanye West shook up the rap world with their 2011 collaborative album, Watch the Throne, which has gone down as arguably the biggest collaborative album of all time. If you were to compare it to a sport, rap is like boxing, where every solo artist or group is gunning for a shot at the title, battling it out with other contenders for the love, affection, and buying power of music fans worldwide. When you add the ego and borderline arrogance that has long been a trait of rap's top heavyweights, solo artists teaming up for a full-length project was more of a rarity than a regular occurrence in the upper rungs of the hip-hop food chain.
So when news of Kanye West and Jay Z, two of the biggest rap stars of the 2000s, deciding to take their talents to Hawaii, Australia, Hov's hometown, New York City, France, and England to record an album was confirmed and not just a wet dream, the anticipation and hype in the air was palpable, to say the least. However, while the prospect of hearing Jay Z rhyming alongside his self-proclaimed little brother Kanye West for an entire LP was enough to make rap fans salivate, there were doubts in the air as to whether what fans thought to be the ideal project would actually satisfy expectations. Prior to its release, collaborative albums in the mold of Watch the Throne were few and far between.
One of the first notable instances of successful solo artists teaming up for a monster project occurred in 1997; when Nas, Foxy Brown, and AZ - along with newcomer Nature - formed a supergroup called The Firm, and announced an album that was expected to be a guaranteed classic. With Nas having released one of the greatest rap debuts of all time in Illmatic and attained double-platinum status with his sophomore set It Was Written; and Foxy Brown also being a platinum artist after releasing her own debut Ill Na Na in 1996, the album's buzz was definitely justified. And when you throw in AZ, who had earned a gold plaque with his debut, Doe or Die, and was expected to follow Nas' lead and take the leap to the big time on his next album, and the fact that it would be executive produced by Dr. Dre, arguably the greatest hip-hop producer of all-time, it had the potential to be an instant classic.
And although The Album yielded a handful of stellar moments, including "Phone Tap," "Desperados," "I'm Leaving," and "Throw Your Guns," it was a seismic disappointment, both commercially and critically, causing the group to call it quits after the album's release. Another event that may not have gotten an equal amount of fanfare, but was just as, if not even more, of a dream project for choice rap fans was the pairing of J. Dilla and Madlib, two of the most respected boardsmen in hip-hop and capable MCs in their own right. Deciding to swap beats and rhyme for the sport of it, their experiment resulted in their 2003 release, Champion Sound, under the name Jaylib, and has been cited as one of the greatest indie rap records of the new millennium. Another instance of two noteworthy rap artists colliding for a joint LP was when Lil Wayne and Birdman connected in 2006 for Like Father, Like Son. Released at the peak of Lil Wayne's popularity, the album spawned multiple hit singles and was a surprisingly impressive as opposed to a mere vanity project, as many collaborative albums tend to be.
Despite technically being a solo set, the instance of two solo acts coming together that most rivals Watch the Throne would be the 1995 release, Only Built For Cuban Linx, which saw Wu-Tang Clan members Raekwon and Ghostface Killah joining forces, matching wits, and concocting one of the most riveting and celebrated rap releases to date. But whereas Rae and Ghost were speaking to the streets and rap fans of the mid '90s, Jay Z and Kanye's target audience is primarily millennials and members of the black community aspiring for excellence rather than the murder and mayhem that's prevalent on OB4CL.
Aside from being in a class comparable to that of "The Purple Tape," another distinction that makes Watch the Throne such an event was the fact that it even occurred. Collaborative albums tend to be discussed but are often never realized. Dr. Dre and Ice Cube's Helter Skelter album; Jay Z, DMX, and Ja Rule's proposed Murder Inc. project; Scarface and Beanie Sigel's Mac & Brad collab; and Lil Wayne and Juelz Santana's Can't Feel My Face--the artists said they were coming, fans started buzzing, but none of those albums ever actually happened.
So the fact that two rap artists still considered to be elite in their own right would take a cue from LeBron James and Dwayne Wade and clique up to wreak havoc on the rest of the league was revolutionary, in a sense. The closest thing to Watch the Throne had been Jay Z and R. Kelly's Best of Both Worlds project. Released nearly a decade prior, the album garnered a platinum plaque, but garnered lackluster reviews and is seen as more of an afterthought and a blemish rather than a moment of triumph in either Jay and Kelz's careers.
By contrast, Watch the Throne was considered a tour de force upon its release, with the album receiving an average score of 76 out of 100, based on 42 reviews. The L.A. Times extolled the LP's virtues, with writer Randall Roberts dubbing the album a cocksure, fiery, smart, if problematic, collaboration that showcases the pair's distinct lyrical skills, their way around a metaphor and an ability to execute both a grand narrative and the details that turn it into truth." One review, written by Kyle Anderson for Entertainment Weekly, lauded the album, but concluded that "It feels too much like a Kanye West project featuring a clutch of Jay-Z cameos. They sound like they’re on the same page only during fleeting moments, and when those slip by, listening inevitably is more frustrating than fulfilling."
While that assertion is plausible, many have noted that Watch the Throne was more of a passion project for Kanye that was presented to Hov, hence Mr. West's heavy influence on the construct, ethos, and sonic qualities of the album. Imagine the joy for a guy who once recorded a passive-aggressive tribute song to his distant benefactor to be obliged by Hov after voicing his intentions of shaking up the world with the album of the century. Kanye being at the wheel with arguably the greatest rapper of all time riding shotgun could have been Yeezy's most rewarding career experience.
But one can't miss Jay Z's imprint on Watch the Throne. Songs like "No Church In The Wild," "That's My Bitch," "Murder to Excellence," could all have lived on 2013s Magna Carta Holy Grail. Additionally, while Kanye's production qualities are unmistakable on Watch the Throne, its emphasis on black excellence can largely be attributed to Jay, who has preached that gospel dating back to his early 2000s run on albums like The Blueprint and The Black Album. Kanye West may be able to brag that he stood toe-to-toe with a hip-hop icon like Jay for the duration of an album, but Jay Z also gained something valuable: the grandiose, sonic blueprint that he has employed in the wake of Watch the Throne--for better and worse.
After hitting iTunes on March 8, 2011, Watch the Thone would grab the top spot on the Billboard 200, selling 436,000 copies in its first week of release and has moved over 1.5 million units to date, making it a resounding success, both commercially and critically. With Watch the Throne setting the template, other major rap artists began teaming up and releasing high-profile albums. Wiz Khalifa and Snoop Dogg dropped a Watch the Throne esque project for the tokers, titled Mac & Devin Go To High School, Tyga and occasional rapper Chris Brown teamed up for their Fan of a Fan mixtape and have since released a studio album. Ghostface Killah and MF Doom's long-awaited Doomstarks project has been teased relentlessly as well, but the project that post-Watch The Throne that can most directly be tied to it is Drake and Future's much-talked about joint album, What a Time To Be Alive.
Released last September, the album came during both rappers' peaked earlier that year, Drake with his If You're Reading This It's Too Late album, and Future with his DS2 album, making it one of the most enticing bodies of work that had been dangled in front of rap fans in quite some time. And while the hooplah on social media and beyond surrounding What a Time To Be Alive's release was a sight to behold and the album debuted at No. 1 with 375,000 units sold in its first week, eventually being certified platinum by the RIAA, its staying power has paled in comparison to Watch The Throne, which is still revered five years later. Sure, there will probably many more high-profile instances when two superstars put their egos aside, the music at the forefront, and give the fans something to be excited for (Kanye West and Drake, anyone?). But there will be few that have the impact that Jigga and Yeezy did when they crafted this opus.