Monday, August 15, 2011

Watch The Throne: Not For Beginners

I was supposed to write this review two nights ago, but I had to decompress for a couple days after watching this. Go see it and you'll understand.

I've read comments and reviews from all over the map about this album. Some praise Jay and 'Ye's chemistry, some claim there is none. Half say Jay's lyrics were better, the other half claim Kanye got the nod. The Monday-morning quarterbacking goes on and on with no real consensus as to what we actually have on our hands here. After listening to this album for pretty much an entire week, all I have left to offer is one question and one observation. Let's take them in turn.

Question: What did you expect?

Did you expect Kanye's ear for production and composition to be anything less than stellar? If you did, then I'm very sorry to disappoint you. Because the production on this album is, quite simply, some of the best I've heard since OutKast released Stankonia. Given what I've been able to gather about their respective creatives processes, I have to assume Kanye took the reigns with most of the instrumental/accompaniment aspects of the project. And yes there was input from a laundry-list of great hip hop sound men like Q-Tip, Swizz Beats, The Neptunes, 88-Keys, RZA, and Pete Rock. But ultimately, the orchestration of this album's luscious and dense sonic landscapes feels much more like a continuation of Kanye's trajectory on "...Dark Fantasy" than Jay's on "Blueprint 3". There is a clear sense of experimentation on many of the tunes on the album, but that's to be expected. What's not experimental about two powerhouses of hip hop attempting to building cohesion from substantially dichotomous individual aesthetics?

Did you expect Jay not to rhyme about being rich? Did you expect 'Ye not to rhyme about being a genius? Have you been listening at all?

Jay's been rhyming about being rich since he was broke in 1995. The name of the record label he helped begin is called Roc-A-Fella Records. Like he said on "Jockin Jay-Z":

Haters like, "Hov, why you still talkin' money sh*t?"
'Cause I like money, b*tch!

And Kanye's had a high opinion of his brilliance since the beginning, even before his career firmly began. One of the emcees at the epicenter of Kanye's birth as a full-fledged artist is Talib Kweli. Last summer, Kweli was interviewed by discussing the early stages of Kanye's thrust into hip hop stardom. Have a look here. This pretty much sums it up.

Having said that, the lyrical diversity on this album is much more than I expected. With tracks like "New Day", "Murder to Excellence", and "Made in America" Jay and 'Ye are exploring parts of their thoughts and experiences that could only be revealed with exceptional attention paid to their personal ethics and journeys through life. And it's not like these are throw away tracks. They embody all the energy, commitment, and engagement heard throughout the entire record.

'Ye is rhyming like the government is about to cut off his oxygen.
Jay is rhyming like he's speaking to the United Nations.

These cats are writing as boldly and aggressively as they ever have.

Did you expect a ton of guest artists? I know I did. I'm happy their were few, and employed for specific effect. Kudos to them for not going overboard here.

Did you expect this to instantly be a classic record? Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn't. I'm not quite sure yet. While I certainly believe ...Throne to be a wonderful work, I'm still having trouble putting all the pieces together. Right now the album feels to me like a collection of two or three brilliant individual projects, like Jay and 'Ye could have released three EPs over the course of a year rather than one LP all at once. And as I mentioned earlier, this is most certainly an experimental album. However, I will say this; I expect many great things to be born from their efforts; videos, tour dates, follow up albums. The more these two work, the more refined their focus. This is certainly a good beginning.

As for my observation...

I've been walking and riding around listening to this album for almost a week now. It's been a gorgeous summer in Philadelphia, beautiful people are jogging along the river, and the general feeling of August is quite palpable. However, as I've experienced this past week with ...Throne as my soundtrack, something simply didn't feel right.

At first I couldn't put my finger on it. I mean, beautiful summer weather and good hip hop music have always seemed to fit hand in hand. But somehow, this particular album struggled to fit the pace and rhythms of the season. It was as if I was driving on the interstate all alone in perfect comfort, but with some jackass riding in my blind spot. It must have taken me four days to figure it out, but I think I finally have a fix on it.

Summertime hip hop releases are usually reserved for the party rockin', licence plate-rattlin' mega-hit singles that pulsate through the community. Fat Joe had one with "Lean Back". Sean Paul sneaked up on us with "Gimme the Light". And do you remember Lumidee? I'll bet you don't. But do you remember this? I'll bet you do.

And that's just it. Summertime hip hop has always been pleasantly youthful and, honestly, a tad bit disposable. It's supposed to be. It's designed to expire in September, making room for the more controversial and introspective releases of the fall, winter, and spring. It's the parts of the year between summers where I feel classic albums best work their magic.

To illustrate this, I randomly picked 20 albums that have all been considered some of the best music to emerge from hip hop culture. Then I looked up the release date of each album, ignoring the year. I will list them all here.

The Fugees The Score - February 13
Boogie Down Productions Criminal Minded - March 3
The Notorious B.I.G. Life After Death - March 25
Public Enemy It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back - April 14
Nas Illmatic - April 19
Ice Cube AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted - May 16
Pete Rock and CL Smooth Mecca and the Soul Brother - June 9
Jay-Z Reasonable Doubt - June 25
Eric B and Rakim Paid in Full - July 7
N.W.A. Straight Outta Compton - August 8
Lauryn Hill The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill - August 25
Black Star Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star - August 26
The Notorious B.I.G. Ready to Die - September 13
A Tribe Called Quest The Low End Theory - September 24
Common Resurrection - October 25
OutKast Stankonia - October 31
Wu-Tang Clan 36 Chambers (Enter the Wu-Tang) - November 9
Beastie Boys Licensed to Ill - November 15
Snoop Dogg Doggystyle - November 23
Dr. Dre The Chronic - December 15

Out of 20 albums, only four of them were truly released during the summer. I'm not counting Miseducation and ...Black Star due to being released so late into August. Those are really autumn albums; that's the season in which they made their greatest impact.

Of course, I felt as if this could have been a fluke. How could it be that so few of the albums hip hop considers timeless are released in the summer? Additionally, the number of summer albums on this list equals 20%. So am I just fooling myself because the year can be equally divided into four parts? Would the next count add up to 25% and debunk my finding? So I picked twenty more classic albums, but I won't bother posting the list because my findings were exactly the same. Four out of 20 were summer releases, with the other 16 heavily weighted in the late fall and early spring. And yes, they were random. You're just gonna have to trust me.

Why am I saying all of this? Well, I believe Jay and 'Ye could have done themselves a favor and waited to release this album later in the year, perhaps mid-November or so. It's just not a summer album. Their risks are too large, the orchestration too rich, and the lyrics are too well crafted for the simple-minded feeling of summer. Watch The Throne is not an album for beginners, dummies, or folks with no sense of humor. Textually and aurally, there's simply too much to digest while the sun's out. No one's really going to turn on their brains until kids go back to school and the first blast of Arctic air comes rolling in from our neighbors to the north. And I feel the disparity and conflict seen in the various responses and reviews reflects this. No one knows what to make of it because they're all just thinking about getting out to the beach (including me!).

Personally, I'm just going to put this one away for a while and come back to it after I bleed my radiator. It's too dope for me right now.


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