The Anniversary

Watch The Throne Turns 10

Def Jam/Roc Nation/Roc-A-Fella
2011
Def Jam/Roc Nation/Roc-A-Fella
2011

Nobody needed Watch The Throne. That includes the people who made it, who perhaps needed it least of all. In 2011, both Kanye West and Jay-Z were doing just fine. After his would-be dramatic return from retirement Kingdom Come had fallen flat, Jay rebounded with American Gangster, the album inspired by Ridley Scott’s movie that also proved Jay could still be fun when he dug into his core topics. And then there was The Blueprint III — another artistic low point in Jay’s catalog, but also the album that yielded “Empire State Of Mind,” his only #1 hit as a lead artist. In the decade that followed, Jay’s musical output would remain uneven, but he’d be doing quite alright becoming a wealthier and wealthier mogul.

Meanwhile, Kanye was in the midst of a creative zenith his listeners only partially grasped at the time. We didn’t know it yet, but his divisive 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak would perhaps go down as his most influential work, a precursor to a complete overhaul of mainstream rap that would unfold over the course of the 2010s. Then he’d pulled off his own mini-comeback of sorts in 2010, when My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy reestablished him as a critical and artistic force while also grappling with the public fallout surrounding his infamous stage-crashing debacle at the 2009 VMAs. In 2013, he’d follow that with Yeezus, cementing a streak of visionary, genre-bending albums that defined their time. As he once claimed, he really was the nucleus.

Within all of that, Watch The Throne now almost scans as a tangent. There wasn’t any real reason for these two superstars to make an album together at that juncture. Except, well: because they could. That simple impetus became core to understanding Watch The Throne — the Kanye and Jay-Z collaborative album many had imagined but still seemed like fan fiction, the monolithic team-up that did actually happen when it arrived 10 years ago this Sunday.

When Watch The Throne arrived, it was a momentous occasion, two titans joining forces. But the project started out almost laughably compact considering both these artists only ever operate on a cinematic scale. Before the album materialized, there had been talk of a collaborative EP between Ye and Jay. The partnership had a rich history to draw upon, with some of West’s earliest buzz coming from production credits with Jay, and with Jay already having lent his presence to Kanye songs like the “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” remix and “Monster.” They were sometimes-rival brothers who had a long history together — one a reigning icon with feet planted in both rap’s golden age and its mainstream insurgence, the other an iconoclast for the new generation. Predictably, this endeavor bloomed well beyond an initial handful of songs.

And from there, everything else about Watch The Throne became similarly blown out, decadent, too-big-to-fail. Kanye and Jay convened in a handful of locations, gathering a murderer’s row of producers, features, and samples. The album would’ve been an Event regardless, and at its core it was still fueled by the interplay between Kanye and Jay, but every other element underlined its foregone blockbuster status: Beyoncé’s big pop hook on “Lift Off,” Otis Redding chopped up into a percussive backdrop for “Otis,” pivotal appearances from then-newcomers Hit-Boy and Frank Ocean, production helmed by West that extended the dense, opulent sounds he’d recently been favoring. It’s one of those superstar albums that had wealth baked into its very aesthetic. There wasn’t any reason Kanye and Jay-Z had to assert dominance at this point in either of their careers, but that didn’t matter. Watch The Throne naturally became the sort of glittering, gigantic sound that clearly communicated a perspective from two people who had climbed to the top of the world.

Sometimes you couldn’t resist the celebration. “Otis” was all about how great both Jay and Ye and their respective lives were, but it had an easy charm that could sweep you up in it. “No Church In The Wild” was a rumbling, foreboding intro that also sounded incredibly badass when played at loud volumes while cruising down the highway. Best of all, “N****s In Paris” was an immortal banger for the ages, a rearrange-your-DNA beat underpinning a tale of lavish hedonism as deserved escapism. It was the major hit of the album, and remains one of the greatest songs either artist had their name on in the last decade.

That song also pointed to one of the major threads that reminded you there were actual humans behind Watch The Throne. Jay rapped: “You escaped what I’ve escaped/ You’d be in Paris getting fucked up too.” The theoretical triumphalism of Watch The Throne wasn’t simply about these two being rich megastars. Across the album, they grappled with being Black and this successful, of the communities they came from. At the time, everyone seized on the bleary “New Day” as a moment of true gravity, Jay and Ye rapping to their unborn sons. The duo attempted some complex and tenuous balancing acts: One of the most musically exhilarating tracks on the album, “Murder To Excellence,” meditated on Black-on-Black crime before switching to images of Black wealth. It’s easy to remember Watch The Throne as pure show business excess, all glitz and glamor and impossibly luxe production. But back then, it was just as often regarded as another document riddled with demons, not all that removed from, at least, Kanye’s other work in that era.

The name itself suggested grandiosity and royalty. But it’s almost shocking to revisit old Jay quotes and remember that the phrase “watch the throne” was almost from a defensive, maybe vulnerable place. As he said back then:

It’s just protecting the music and the culture. It’s people that’s in the forefront of the music. “Watch the throne,” like protect it. You just watch how popular music shift, and how hip-hop basically replaced rock & roll as the youth music. The same thing can happen to hip-hop. It can be replaced by other forms of music. So it’s making sure that we put the effort into making the best product so we can contend with all this other music, with dance music that’s dominating the charts right now and indie music that’s dominating the festivals.

Since then, the early ’10s EDM bubble burst and guitar-based music never toppled rap from its chart dominance. And while certain lyrics and quotes might allow Watch The Throne more nuance than the purely hubristic victory lap some wrote it off as, the bombast was still in full force. They were firmly on the throne then. A few years after the album came out, Jay-Z also served as a producer for the music in Baz Luhrmann’s giddily garish interpretation of The Great Gatsby. You had “No Church In The Wild” prowling over a sky’s view of ’20s New York City; you had “Who Gon Stop Me” reverberating around an apartment while flappers and men in suspenders got day drunk. It wasn’t hard to convince Jay-Z to participate in the album, supposedly; just as American Gangster had inspired him by making him think of parallels in his own life, so too could he relate to the Gatsby character. And, naturally, it isn’t hard to make your own connections between the Roaring ’20s and an album like Watch The Throne.

Of course, The Great Gatsby now scans as some tragic American myth, a great era of over-indulgence preceding the Great Depression. Watch The Throne arrived during the worst downturn since then, into an America still rattled by the recession. As much as personal narrative made Watch The Throne complicated to unpack, there was still the fact that this album was made by two very wealthy, very prominent celebrities, at a moment when many Americans’ lives felt like they were in a perpetual downward spiral. This didn’t go unnoticed at the time, with at least some criticism and commentary circling the idea that such an exorbitant display was tonally discordant given the context. Who needed a sort of superstar vanity project in days like these? To say it was gauche was an understatement.

Yet, as one key moment of Watch The Throne put it by way of Will Ferrell: “No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative. It gets the people going.” Maybe a whole project of “because they can” fueled the ire of those already fed up with the ruling classes and rich celebrities during a period like the recession. But at the same time, Watch The Throne was the blockbuster it promised to be. You couldn’t look away from the spectacle. And when Kanye and Jay took it on the road, the people came, making their tour the highest grossing rap tour ever.

That is, until Drake took their record half a decade later. It was still brewing at the time, but maybe there was a reason Kanye and Jay made Watch The Throne. Maybe they were striking a protective stance. At the time, Kanye himself was a veteran mainstream presence, let alone Jay. There were ascendent names eyeing the throne, sometimes quite literally: “I’m just feeling like the throne is for the taking — watch me take it,” Drake rapped in “I’m On One” earlier in 2011. He once denied this line was about Ye and Hov, but we all know how the next decade played out. Drake reshaped rap and R&B in his image. In terms of actual pop clout, Watch The Throne was actually more or less the last time both Kanye and Jay were literally the center of the universe. They remain stars, but stars with their own galaxies revolving around them off to the side of the mainstream. And at the same time the two drifted away from whatever was new, fiery, and bubbling up in the rap mainstream, they also ventured further from anything resembling relatability.

The squeamish qualities of Watch The Throne have only further curdled in the 10 years that have passed. You thought Watch The Throne was about wealth? It pales compared to where each artist has gone since. By the time Jay was onto his next solo album, 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, it was easy to grow weary of the disconnect, his old rags-to-riches mythology now sounding increasingly rote the more stratospherically wealthy he became. He was officially declared a billionaire in 2019. And when he and Beyoncé finally released their long-rumored album as the Carters in 2018 — complete with a music video shot on location at the Louvre — it came and went without making a fraction of Watch The Throne‘s impact.

Kanye became a whole other thorny topic: joining up with the Kardashian business apparatus for the better part of a decade, taking photos with Donald Trump, and battling disconcerting mental health sagas in a very public fashion. But here’s the crazy thing about that old “nucleus” quote from Kanye: Back in 2013, he was talking about how because he was the nucleus, he would end up running a company worth billions of dollars. Everyone laughed then, but West was right; it’s almost like he spoke it into existence. The result of all that success, though, has been further disconnect from reality. Maybe there are qualities of Watch The Throne that could still feel aspirational. But today, these two artists have more in common with the elites of the world busying themselves with joy rides in space than they do with any of us on the ground.

Imagine if they made another one. People have envisioned it for years, just as they once dreamed up the very premise of Watch The Throne. Kanye and Jay have talked about a sequel at times, but the push-pull of their relationship veered into rocky territory through the latter half of the ’10s, with various grievances at some point or another creeping into headlines. That was one of the most shocking bits to emerge from one of West’s recent Donda listening parties, a Jay-Z verse proclaiming: “Told him to stop all that red cap, we going home/ Cannot be with all these sins casting stones/ This might be the return of the Throne.” One source close to Kanye is even reporting that Watch The Throne 2 will be out this year. We’ll see about that: There’s no evidence in recent history to suggest Kanye West is capable of meeting self-imposed deadlines. If the Donda saga has shown us anything, though, it’s that he’s still fully capable of delivering a grandiose spectacle.

“How many people you know can take it this far?” Beyoncé sang on “Lift Off” back in 2011. Watch The Throne was already emanating from a world most of us couldn’t picture, couldn’t touch, would never see. Consider the premise now, as both Jay and Kanye have reached not just abstract cultural pinnacles but sit atop real-deal capitalist empires. Their lives have only grown more unfathomable to most of us, as wealth disparities have become a central element of public discourse and the pandemic has further emphasized the inequalities of our society. Fans clamor for Watch The Throne 2, but how would that sound today? How would it translate? There shouldn’t be any way to take it further than where Kanye and Jay went before. There shouldn’t be a way you could sound even more ostentatious. But if someone would figure it out, it’d be these two. Because they can.

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