Jay-Z and Kanye West’s 2011 collaborative work, Watch the Throne debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200 chart, selling 436,000 copies its first week. It is Jay-Z’s 12th number one album in the United States and the fifth for West. With songs produced by West and emceed by both men, the album is diverse and its content varied. Standout tracks from the album are songs like “Otis,” “New Day,” “Murder to Excellence” and “Made in America.” Each is full with social commentary as told through scenarios in both rappers’ lives.
The lyrics are laid over lush production and Jay and ‘Ye’s tag-team rhymes provide contrasting accounts of shared experiences. Watch the Throne is also aggressively ostentatious with references to esoteric art, luxury cars and expensive vacations. Riccardo Tisci of the French fashion house Givency even designed the album’s cover artwork, an image of gilded, ornate embroidery. All of this considered, in combination with the warning implicit in its title, contributes to Watch the Throne as the most subversive Hip Hop album of the past 20 years.
Watch the Throne is a thesis on what success means for Black men in America. What Kanye and Jay have to say extremely valuable, as is how they say it.
Otis,” the first single from the album was instrumental to its promotion and branding. It is named for Otis Redding, whom it samples throughout. The seemingly unrelated use of Redding’s voice from “Try A Little Tenderness” over lyrics about materialism becomes more appropriate with an understanding of Redding’s contribution to the legacy of Blacks in the music industry (Redding having been one of few Black singers to maintain publishing rights for the hit songs he wrote.) His example is in line with the entrepreneurship that made Jay-Z and Kanye West millionaires. At one point in the song, Jay-Z boasts, “Driving Benzes, wit' no benefits / Not bad huh? / For some immigrants / Build your fences, we diggin' tunnels / Can't you see? We gettin' money up under you.”
The video for the “Otis” is set in an empty freight rail yard where the only props are an American flag mural and a deconstructed Maybach, the German luxury automobile valued at $350,000. The video opens with Jay-Z and Kanye approaching the beautiful car menacingly with a power saw and welding torch in their hands. They mock and endorse symbols of the American dream for over three minutes, speeding through the rails yard in the mangled Maybach with beautiful women in the backseat. The last frame is a message stating that proceeds from the auction of the car will go to East African drought disaster relief.
“New Day” samples another strong figure within Black music: Nina Simone. It samples the first few lines of vocal from her “Feeling Good.” The song walks the line between introspection and melancholy as West and Jay-Z lament personal decisions veiled as advice to their prospective children. On this song, Kanye takes highly publicized events from his own life and examines them in a powerful display of identity negotiation. He rhymes, “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 him be Republican / So everybody know he love white people”
Those lines, partly facetious, show West’s awareness of his image within media and popular culture. For actions like his speaking out against former president George W. Bush in response to the devastation of Hurrican Katrina and interrupting an MTV awards show, he has been labeled an egomaniac and crazy. In the above lyric, West seems to make a connection between the criticism he has received and the fact that he is a Black man. He challenges his image as a belligerent black man and what suspects to be its root. He continues, “And I’ll never let him ever hit the telethon / I mean even if people dyin’ and the world ends / See, I just want him to have an easy life / Not like Yeezy life, just want him to be someone people like.”
By far the song with the richest social commentary on Watch the Throne is “Murder to Excellence.” It parallels the opulent lifestyles of Jay-Z and West with those of young, Black men living in America’s cities. West looks to his hometown Chicago, calling it the “murder capital” while Jay-Z opens the song with a tribute to Danroy Henry, a Pace University student killed by the police in New York.
If not expressed explicitly, Jay-Z subtly connects his condition to that of young Black men around the country. Here, he is reorienting the listener’s expectation of him; wealthy, famous and powerful through connection to people like Danroy Henry. Jay-Z affirms his connection to community through a shared vulnerability to police brutality and other random violence when rhymes “I’m out here celebrating my post-demise.” In a very complex way, the comment calls out the expectation of destruction that plagues Black men and the extreme deviation of Jay-Z’s life from it. He uses both to justify his lifestyle.
That seems to be he point of Watch the Throne. Jay-Z and Kanye represent something that makes America nervous and excited all at the same time. They’re either in on the joke or they are it, a prospect so complex it produces 12 tracks that sound like therapy sessions put on wax. It’s full of rich people problems. Ripe with black people problems. W. E. B. Du Bois might have called it double consciousness, a phenomenon he described in his landmark book “The Souls of Black Folk” when he wrote “One ever feels his twoness - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two reconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”