A king's throne is not for the taking. In hip hop though, many have laid claim to it. Saying you’re "the best" is always the easiest way to get attention. Still, few have actually been acknowledged as throne-worthy MCs. Jay-Z is on that short list.
At a swanky downtown hotel in NYC, Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter played tracks from his upcoming Watch the Throne project, a collaborative album with Kanye West that has had most rap fans salivating at the mouth since it was announced. For the rapper’s rapper and the producer-rapper, two individuals considered to be at the top of their craft, a project as such generates the highest of expectations. Because of such anticipation, few details have been released, until now.
In a room full of journalists, two pre-order contest winners, RocNation employees, and champagne, Jay-Z is extremely comfortable. Being used to the routine, he knows how to turn around an awkward situation, like when a journalist is removed from the room for tweeting too many details (“let’s not act like we all didn’t see that just happen,” he jokes). And he certainly isn’t fazed by questions about the perceived difficulties of working with Kanye (Jay says Kanye’s motive always comes from a good place). But, with a career that spans 15 years and 11 albums, Jay can afford to be relaxed.
For this listening session, there is no introduction. Jay immediately gets into the music, which has everyone’s full attention. The first track, seemingly titled “Non-Believer” (there are no “official” song titles yet), is a hard-hitting up-tempo joint featuring Frank Ocean singing on the chorus. The sound is all too reminiscent of “Novacaine,” but with stellar verses from Jay-Z and Kanye, it gets the job done. Next up is “Lift Off” (also a working title), a song with Beyoncé belting her heart out on the chorus. The music utilizes a space shuttle “lift off” background to help bring home the theme that Jay and Kanye are musically on another planet. But Hov and Yeezy are at their best when they revisit the old, soulful sound that made The Blueprint a classic album—Jay later acknowledges Pete Rock and CL Smooth, as well as RZA and Wu-Tang Clan, as early influencers on the sound. Over an Otis Redding sample (“it sounds so soulful, don’t you agree?”), Kanye and his “big brother” lay self-serving bars over a head-nodding loop. The room full of listeners are hypnotized by this track.
Jay acknowledges one particular song as “Kanye’s best verse.” Both rappers deliver introspective lyrics which they direct at their hypothetical “sons.” Kanye admits his faults and reveals his regrets, rapping about how he would never let his son make the same mistakes he’s made. He even ends with a line about letting his mom move to Los Angeles, a move he has mentioned in a previous interview that he feels played a role in her death.
For Jay-Z, Watch the Throne is showing his growth. Not so much musically but, moreso, personally. See, Jay has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to rap. That’s no secret. But now he is so established in his career, his new lyrics seem to be about his bigger purpose. There are moments on WTT when Jay makes more references to Jesus than he ever has before, and there was a line or two, or three, about being “Black,” which has never been a secret, but Blackness has never been played up by him on such a socio-political level (see the tentatively titled “No Church”). Maybe Kanye is helping him bring out a deeper sense of religion.
Or maybe he just has a better understanding of who he is now. At the end of the night, Hov explains how a fan tapped him recently to tell him that Jay had gotten him “through his life.” He mentions another time when a UPS driver pulled up beside him and told him to make sure he got home safely because he was an “inspiration.” Jay says that both episodes had him feeling a way.
This is not to say that everything he rhymes about is "golden". One more mention of anything European being superior might be enough to start a second American revolution (“has the [musical] throne been relocated to England?”) But, with his current international appeal, Mr. Carter is showing off his influences and lifestyle, which have changed a lot since the black hoody days. Some of the album was even recorded in "the land down under," Australia.
But if there’s one thing that both Jay-Z and Kanye can’t escape, even with all their worldly experiences, it’s the ability to motivate people with their music. Neither rapper has ever really conformed to a “popular” sound. Hip hop has never really been about following trends. It’s been about leading them. And a true leader is not someone who sits on a throne but, rather, one who stands for something. It's someone who inspires and motivates people. All in all, Jay-Z is showing no signs of allowing the throne to be hijacked away from him. But he doesn’t have to sit on it to do so. Instead, he’ll just watch it, and make sure that hip hop isn’t led in the wrong direction.
(Photo: Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for VEVO)