Jay-Z & Kanye West: Watch the Throne - review

Jay-Z gets all the best lines, but it's Kanye who seems to be in creative charge here, says Alexis Petridis

You have to be impressed with Jay-Z's resolve when it comes to the matter of collaborative albums, perhaps the one chequered area in an otherwise triumphant career. A mini-album with nu-metal band Linkin Park was at best a minor addition to his oeuvre, but it looked like a roaring success compared to his collaborations with R Kelly, which spawned two terrible albums – the latter promoted by a tour Jay-Z colourfully described as a "nightmarish odyssey", and which abruptly concluded when Kelly was maced by one of Jay-Z's entourage en route to the stage at Madison Square Gardens.

Jay-Z later suggested the problem was that Kelly was "absolutely bonkers". Thus, you might imagine he would think long and hard about teaming up with Kanye West, a man who last weekend was once more to be found treating an audience to one of his famous on-stage speeches. Eight minutes long, set to a tinkling piano accompaniment and peppered with random bursts of Auto-Tuned singing, it variously covered the amount of time it had taken him to get to the 2006 MTV Europe Music Awards, the career of Michael Jordan and the work of Helmut Newton, before concluding "people look at me like I'm Hitler" ("the infamous Hitler," one US reporter clarified, for the benefit of anyone who thought he meant Dickie Hitler, the unassuming philanthropist). It was the latest in a series of incidents that have caused some voices to suggest West might be "bonkers" as well. These voices, it has to be said, include one Kanye West: "I never live in fear, I'm too out of my mind," he offers on one track from Watch the Throne, Prime Time.

Either way, West is on an artistic high after 2010's remarkable My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. You get the feeling Jay-Z – nothing if not canny – is prepared to align himself with another loose cannon in exchange for some of West's inspiration. Certainly, Watch the Throne feels more like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy than a Jay-Z album, from the obsession with haute couture – even the sleeve is the work of Givenchy's creative director – to the similar array of guests, including La Roux and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, whose appearance gives listeners the chance to enjoy the improbable sound of the lovelorn author of For Emma, Forever Ago singing the chorus of a song called That's My Bitch. Its flaws seem to stem from the very West-like traits of solipsism – Who Gon Stop Me perhaps unwisely appears to suggest the entire history of African-American oppression is leavened by the success of a certain rapper – and trying a bit too hard. The single Otis boldly samples Otis Redding's Try a Little Tenderness, an idea that veers wildly from inspired – at one point the ballad is manipulated into a propulsive sweaty grunt-a-thon – to a clubfooted mess.

More often, however, Watch the Throne continues My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy's mood of restless creativity. The musical scenery of Niggas in Paris and Who Gon Stop Me shifts unpredictably behind West and Jay-Z's voices. There's something particularly thrilling about the way the former suddenly lurches from staccato orchestration into fizzing industrial noise, not to mention the fact that West follows a particularly torturous metaphor with a burst of dialogue from Blades of Glory – "no one knows what it means, but it's provocative", hinting at a hitherto-unnoticed ability to laugh at himself. There are unlikely samples. No Church in the Wild sets Frank Ocean's haunting vocal against Roxy Music's Phil Manzanera playing a tricksy prog riff. But equally impressive is the way the producers breathe fresh life into well-worn sounds. Nina Simone's A New Day is a song robbed of its power by its ubiquity among X Factor contestants: you wouldn't think putting it through the equally ubiquitous Auto-Tune would help matters much, but on New Day, the cumulative effect is impressively weird and disorientating.

If Watch the Throne's musical direction seems like West's work, it's worth noting that Jay-Z has the better lyrics. He's moving when pondering the negative effect his fame and wealth might have on his children, funny when chivalrously admonishing onlookers for eyeing up his wife: "Shoo children, stop looking at her tits." There's a lovely, warm moment on The Joy when an old Curtis Mayfield sample plays and he notes, almost as an aside: "This is my mama's shit, I used to hear it through the walls in the 'hood." West, meanwhile, is still moaning about South Park taking the mick out of him and struggling with some laboured wordplay. "I write my curses in cursive," he snarls, thus offering up the fairly unedifying sound of a grown man boasting about being able to do joined-up writing. As much of Watch the Throne proves, he has better things to brag about than that.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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