Jay-Z and Kanye West: Watch the Throne – track-by-track review

The royal rappers launched their new album, Watch the Throne, at New York's Museum of Natural History on Monday. Read our first impressions as they jostle for hip-hop's crown

Is it possible for a listening party to be too opulent? Not for hip-hop's two biggest stars, Jay-Z and Kanye West, who held a party for about 400 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York on Monday to celebrate their long-promised collaboration, Watch the Throne.

A bar boasting acres of hors d'oeuvres (we sampled chicken and pineapple satay, lobster rolls, and sweet potato fritters with caramel-pecan glaze), and string-heavy 70s soul set the mood for the main event. Or, more cynically, helped lull a bunch of hacks into hitting Twitter as soon as their mobiles were returned after the playback, praising the album to the skies. (Search #watchthethrone and scroll down for the full, OK-guys-that'll-do details.)

It didn't hurt that the playback was held in the planetarium, under images of shifting constellations. There were plenty of real-life star bodies as well: Q-Tip, who co-produced two of Watch the Throne's tracks (Lift Off, featuring Beyoncé, and Prime Time) was in the domed auditorium before the gathered throng, and he was eventually joined by Kelly Rowland, Jada Pinkett-Smith, and Busta Rhymes, among others. But none of it would have meant anything if the album had disappointed. Itdidn't.

That isn't to say it's an obvious classic – one listen isn't enough to determine that – but it is impressive. Both rappers sound hungry, if restrained, like they're giving each other room. Kanye keeps looking for new angles, both lyrically and in rhyming cadence, while Jay-Z seems more like he's comfortable taking aim, firing and hitting. When it was over, Jay-Z got explained that the album took nine months and three attempts to make. One was finished and, apparently, impressively bombastic but not particularly listenable. Good for them for being shrewd enough to know the difference.

Track-by-track review:

1. No Church in the Wild (ft Frank Ocean)

(prod. Kanye West and 88-Keys)

Over stalking bass, Kanye murmurs "What's a king without a god?" before Jay-Z fires off a strong verse. West is sly and clipped, describing someone as "striped like a zebra/ I call that jungle fever." Frank Ocean sings the hook through a vocoder.

2. Lift Off (ft Beyoncé)

(prod. Kanye West, Mike Dean, Jeff Bhasker, Q-Tip and Don Jazzy)

As galaxies form overhead, Beyoncé sings "Take you to the moon/ Take you to the stars." Now that's selling it. The track is bombastic – the synths recall The Final Countdown by Europe, full of triumphalist opulence.

3. Niggas in Paris

(prod. Hit-Boy, Kanye West, Mike Dean and Anthony Kilhoffer)

This percolating track could have been produced by Wiley, with sick sub-bass and a snare that sounds like static. Both rappers are in excellent form, with Jay-Z repeating "That shit cray" – we are left to fill in the "-zy". Kanye begins in half-time and speeds up. Among the lines that jump out: "I'm suffering from realness" and "Don't let me get in my zone." A standout track.

4. Otis (ft Otis Redding)

(prod. Kanye West)

You know this one already – more beats tied to the bass, as is largely the case on the three tracks preceding it.

5. Gotta Have It

(prod. the Neptunes and Kanye West)

Kanye: "LOLOLOL, America/ Try and assassinate my character."

6. New Day

(prod. RZA, Kanye West, Mike Dean and Ken Lewis)

Now here's a song topic: how Jay and 'Ye plan to raise their as-yet-hypothetical boys. Kayne: "I won't let my son have an ego/ Be nice to everyone wherever we go." And later, in a nod to his notorious comment about George W Bush, he talks about raising his son "Republican, so they know he likes white people".

7. Prime Time

(prod. Q-Tip, Kanye West and Jeff Bhasker)

Throwback time! The scratched-in "ba-bada-you" from Public Enemy's Brothers Gonna Work It Out, the Incredible Bongo Band's Apache conga break, and a chorus that is "very late-80s". Of course it is – they sampled it from La Roux.

8. Welcome to the Jungle

(prod. Swizz Beatz, Mike Dean and Ken Lewis)

Squabbly, mnemonic guitar forms the backdrop here. Great twist on an already worn theme: Jay-Z's "Rest in peace to the leader of the Jackson 5."

9. Who Gon Stop Me

(prod. Sham "Sak Pase" Joseph, Kanye West and Mike Dean)

"I can't stop-op-op-op-op-op": Romping, ravey synths, a big stomp without much give. West: "This is something like a holocaust/ Millions of our people lost."

10. Murder to Excellence

(prod. Swizz Beatz and Symbolyc One)

The obvious centerpiece of the album, its grandest statement: "It's all love," Kanye raps, "I love us" – meaning black America. "Pay-per-view murder/ Black-on-black murder," goes one oft-repeated line, with "black excellence" later replacing it. Congas courtesy of William DeVaughn's Be Thankful for What You've Got.

11. Sweet Baby Jesus (ft Frank Ocean)

(prod. Sham "Sak Pase" Joseph and Mike Dean)

Instead of looking forward to new family, this one looks back at old: Jay-Z raps about his "grandma" (which he rhymes with "star-spangled banner"), Kanye talks about meeting his producer No ID in Chicago and "getting high on my own supply" – of beats, naturally.

12. Why I Love You (ft Mr. Hudson)

(prod. Mike Dean and Kanye West)

Mr Hudson's hook sounds like a pitch-shifted old Ratt record, shrieking hair-metal bombast. The track and verses are pretty good, though, with Jay-Z snarling, "Got a pistol under my pit bull." The song, and album, ends abruptly, which is satisfying.


Michaelangelo Matos

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
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

Alexis Petridis

11, Aug, 2011 @2:30 PM

Article image
Jay-Z & Kanye West: Watch the Throne – review

Some may find their branded gloating distasteful, but hip-hop kings Jay-Z and Kanye West can still make you laugh, writes Kitty Empire

Kitty Empire

13, Aug, 2011 @11:05 PM

I watched the Throne, but where was Kanye West?
Dan Hancox: I braved the cold to see Kanye West at a secret screening of his new video in east London. My reward? Frostbite and footage of a panther projected on to a wall

Dan Hancox

10, Feb, 2012 @1:37 PM

Article image
Jay-Z and Kanye West facing lawsuit over Watch the Throne sample
Soul singer Syl Johnson claims rappers used 1967 song without permission

Sean Michaels

25, Aug, 2011 @9:39 AM

Article image
New music: Kanye West and Jay-Z – H.A.M.

Come on, did you really expect the combined egos of Kanye West and Jay-Z to create a modest, stripped-back affair?

Michael Cragg

11, Jan, 2011 @11:13 AM

Article image
Jay-Z and Kanye West take to the Throne

Hip-hop heavyweights rename themselves for hotly anticipated collaboration album. No jokes about toilet seats, please

Sean Michaels

26, Jul, 2011 @10:18 AM

Article image
Readers' panel: Jay-Z v Kanye West – who's the best?

Adam Boult: It's the biggest battle since Ken v Boris, communism v capitalism, Blur v Oasis or Godzilla v Mothra. Who's the king of rap?

Adam Boult

15, May, 2012 @3:00 PM

Article image
Kanye West/Jay-Z – review
The Bert and Ernie of hip-hop managed to make this extravaganza endearingly intimate, writes Hadley Freeman

Hadley Freeman

06, Nov, 2011 @6:00 PM

Article image
Jay-Z and Kanye West – review

The dynamic between rap's pathologically self-celebrating main players makes them fascinating to watch, writes Ian Gittins

Ian Gittins

20, May, 2012 @4:24 PM

Article image
Jay-Z and Kanye West – review

Forget the rampant egoism and colossal silliness – Jaz-Z and Kanye West's two-hander is still a tour de force, says Kitty Empire

Kitty Empire

26, May, 2012 @11:05 PM