The kingdom is in peril. Confidence has been shaken: “Tears on the mausoleum floor/Blood stains the coliseum doors,” raps Jay-Z on the opening couplets of “Watch the Throne,” his new collaboration with Kanye West. “Lies on the lips of a priest/Thanksgiving disguised as a feast.”
That's a lot of drama for so early, like starting a movie in the middle of a chase scene, especially when contrasted with vocalist Frank Ocean, whose gentle, emotional tenor wonders on the nature of faith and unsound hierarchies. “No church in the wild,” he sings, and with it the listener enters a bejeweled realm, one filled with musings on the spoils of riches and the chaos that accompanies it. This tension between worshiping the spirit and celebrating the bounty drives “Watch the Throne.”
The long-gestating project, released exclusively on iTunes Monday morning at 12:01 a.m., combines the strengths of two of the most acclaimed rappers of the last two decades, Jay-Z and West, who have worked together often but never on a collaborative full-length album, and couples them with some of today's most respected producers, including the RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, DJ Premier, the Neptunes, the Jugganauts, Swizz Beats and Q-Tip.
The result is a cocksure, fiery, smart, if problematic, collaboration that showcases the pair's distinct lyrical skills, their way around a metaphor and an ability to execute both a grand narrative and the details that turn it into truth. Musically, the production is captivating — especially West and RZA's odd, syrupy beat on “New Day” — even if a relative lack of structural variety within the songs makes the record feel a little longer than it actually is.