"What's a king to a god/What's a god to a nonbeliever."
These words open Watch The Throne, and give a strong hint of the kind of lyrical word-spinning -- and thematic undertones -- in store on Jay-Z and Kanye West's collaborative effort. Aside from a few minor leaks, the duo's album -- which is being hailed by some as the cultural event of the year -- dropped digitally Monday at midnight, right on schedule.
For an album that is sonically more scattershot, Hov and Ye's words tell the story here -- they're blunt in meaning, but cut sharply when they hit your ear. The duo addresses a few larger themes -- success, hypocrisy and race among them -- and work their way around them with an unusual mix of cultural references throughout the album, from Will Ferrell's Chazz in "Blades of Glory" to sweet baby Jesus himself.
We'll be liveblogging a track-by-track, line-by-line reading of the album, so keep checking in for the latest from The Throne.
Looking back at our day of all-things-Throne, a few tracks stick out as our favorites. That could change after a few (100) more spins. Let us know yours in the comments:"No Church in the Wild"
"That's My Bitch"
"Who Gon Stop Me"
"Why I Love You"
And off the bonuses: "Primetime"
"Add a little sugar... the joy of children laughing around you... these are the makings of you."
This is the pleasant place we find ourselves on "The Joy," the end of the deluxe edition of "Watch the Throne," courtesy of Curtis Mayfield's delicate "The Makings of You (live)":
Then we're introduced to some unusual grunting, looped over and over via a sample of Syl Johnson's "Different Strokes":
When Mayfield and Johnson's tracks are played over one another, the themes of both songs come together in theory, but sonically the effect is kind of hilarious.
Lyrically, we're again brought to the theme of children as we were on "New Day,' except here it's more deeply embedded in the past:
(KW) "I never understood Planned Parenthood / Cause I never met nobody planned to be a parent in the hood."
Jay then winds back to his own memories:
"I seen so much as a kid they surprised I don’t needle pop/ ... / I got it honest from them parties, from my mama’s / Virgin Mary’s try to judge her, I’m like “Where them Madonna’s now?” / Give all glory to Gloria, they said they said “You raised that boy too fast” / But you was raising a warrior."
Again we end, as we did on "Why I Love You," with some solace:
"They’ll never take the joy from us."
"Primetime" opens with a sweet piano melody and "B-b-b-baby" stuttering on repeat. It's a more relaxed track, taking time to unwind in its expanse and say," the night is young, what you really wanna do" -- and hey, life is pretty good.
"Primetime, basking in the lime / Cassius in his prime [who we heard on "Why I Love You"] / Coloring out of the line / Cause they don’t want nobody that’s colored out of the lines."
The track also samples from “Action” by Orange Krush:
We all heard this one back in January, and not much has changed since then. It really takes going ham to an epic (read: operatic) level. Aude Cardona and Jacob Lewis Smith get their moments to shine around the three minute mark.
Let's not forget the male operatic voice on "H.A.M." That would be one Jacob Lewis Smith:
Jacob Lewis Smith studied at Manhattan School of Music and is currently a student of Victoria Clark. He has recently recorded with Kanye West and Jay Z for the upcoming album Watch the Throne on Def Jam Records. Past shows include Dick McGann in Street Scene (Chautauqua Opera debut), Raggedy Andy in Griffelkin, Cinderella's Prince in Into the Woods, Miles Gloriosus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, 4 Stop Tour (off Broadway), Defying Gravity: A Stephen Schwartz Revue, Hair, Lt. Wright in The Secret Garden, Charlie in Brigadoon, Gregor and featured dancer in Mame, a Gershwin - Bernstein revue, The World Upstairs (a new musical workshop), And the World Goes Round: The Songs of Kander and Ebb, and Tanner on Tanner with Cynthia Nixon
The female operatic voice on both "Illest Motherf***er Alive" and "H.A.M." is one Aude Cardona, according to the liner notes for both tracks. From what limited info there is on Cardona online, it appears that she is a Brooklyn-based yoga instructor/opera singer who teaches a "Yoga for Vocalists" class -- a bit about her:
Aude Cardona started practicing Iyengar Yoga in Rishikesh, India, in 2001. Since then she has continued to deepen her practice in France with S.F Biria, and in the US with Kevin Gardiner, Genny Kapuler, Carrie Owerko and Joan White, eventually choosing to complete a 2 year training where she obtained her Iyengar intro 1 level through the US national association. Audeʼs interest for Iyengar Yoga was instantaneous. Her mind was able to focus and her physical awareness increased, helping her tremendously with her opera singing.
The album may be done, but the deluxe edition is not. First up, we have "Illest Motherf***er Alive," which kicks in after three minutes of silence, with the same carnival-esque instrumental ditty we heard at the end of "New Day," "Welcome to the Jungle" and "No Church in the Wild," with cello by Chris “Hitchcock” Chorney.
The track soon steers away from the instrumentals and heads into more pompous territory, as they rap about being the "illest motherf***er[s] alive," as an operatic voice lays it on thick overhead:
"(JZ)King Hov, I’m exactly what the f**k you think / 11 in a row, Bill Russell rings / Michael Jordan swag, yall think Michael Jordan bad / Ni**a I got a 5 more rings than Michael Jordan had / Elvis has left the building now I’m on the Beatles ass / Ni**as hear Watch The Throne, yeah it’s like the Beatles back."
Delusions of grandeur or tongue-in-cheek? These guys make it hard to tell sometimes.
HuffPost's Kia Makarechi gives "Watch the Throne" his stamp of approval:
By turning the bravado inside out, West invites the listener to wonder if life really is always that great when you're a millionaire rapper. West's creative director Virgil Abloh likes to refer to the album as "luxury rap," but for every mention of a Maybach there is at least one caveat, one price-tag that isn't hanging from a Margiela hoodie. I'm not saying we should all spend today feeling sorry for West and the difficulties of fame, but no one in popular music humanizes the dark side of fame as adeptly as he does...
Jay and Kanye... live in that space between "yes this is as fun as it looks" and "but nothing in life is free." Neither rapper bests their all-time best performances here, but as messy as putting these two careers on the same disc could have been, it's hard to be anything but impressed.
Read more here.
"Why I Love You" ends the album the way it should end -- honestly, as a simultaneously uplifting and frustrated ode to "his n***as," even if "they want me dead," Jay raps.
The song opens with a sample of "I Love You So," by Cassius, taking the song higher than our boys could alone, and getting at the core of the issue:
"Oooh, I love you so, but why I love you I never know."
(LISTEN to the full track here)
Jay-Z enters here, "sitting in the corner all alone burning" as he feels the hate closing in on him:
"Same people that I fought for / That I fight for, that I ride for / That I live for, that I die for / Be the reason that these ni**as is alive for and they want me dead."
Jay raps through his frustrations, that he's unable to give them what he wants:
"I tried to teach ni**as how to be kings / And all they ever wanted to be was soldiers / So the love is gone / Til blood is drawn / So we no longer wear the same uniform."
Our poetic rapper offers, on this final track, all he has to offer -- his love, and his music:
"I’m so sorry but I just can’t die for you / But I can make em put their hands in the sky for you/ ... / And truth be told after all that said / Ni**as still got love for you."
This is mostly Jay's song, his beef, but by the end, Jay and Kanye are trading off lines practically one word at a time, as a single violin plays in the background:
(JZ) P-p-p-paranoia (KW) Cause the ni**a that said he’ll... (JZ) Blast for ya (KW) Is now... (JZ) Blastin for ya / That’s an assassin for ya (KW) These ni**as got a shot they’ll shoot (JZ) Please lord (KW) Forgive him (JZ) For these ni**as (KW) Not know (JZ) What they...
And together: "DO! (Oh)"
If you're holding out for the physical copy dropping on Friday, you can listen to album stream here. To buy it on iTunes, click here.
Frank Ocean is back, providing the chorus to "Made in America":
"Sweet King Martin / Sweet Queen Coretta / Sweet Brother Malcolm / Sweet Queen Betty / Sweet Mother Mary / Sweet Father Joseph / Sweet Jesus / We made it in America / Sweet Baby Jesus / Oh sweet baby Jesus / We made it in America / Sweet baby Jesus / Oh sweet baby Jesus / We made it in America."
Kanye lists off what he's done to get to the top -- and how once he gets there, he just crashes:
"Guess I’m getting high off my own supply / Downtown mixing fabrics tryina find the magic / Started a little blog just to get some traffic / Old folks’ll tell you not to play in traffic / A million hits and the web crashes ...Damn."
Jay takes a more nostalgic turn, looking back at how he got to where he is:
"I pledge allegiance to my Grandma / For that banana pudding, our piece of Americana / Our apple pie was supplied through Arm & Hammer."
After "Who Gon Stop Me" finishes assaulting our ears, "Murder to Excellence" (also produced by Swizz Beatz) is like a breath of fresh air, giving us a chance to regroup... at least sonically. Then the words kick in, and you hear Jay chanting "bloody murder, bloody bloody murder" in the background.
Kanye's voice comes into full focus:
"The paper read murder/Black on black murder/ The paper read murder / Black on black murder."
This song is saying, look, we have enough problems. Let's not add to it by turning on ourselves. Jay puts it simply: "When you see me, see you."
Despite a mention of Steve Urkel, this song is no joke. The track sets off with a sample of "I Can't Stop" by Flux Pavillion, and then Kanye moves into heavier stuff:
"This is something like the Holocaust / Millions of our people lost / Bow our heads and pray to the lord."
Jay takes over:
"Black cards, black cars/Black on black, black broads/Whole lotta money in a black bag / Black strap, you know what that’s for? / (KW) Who gon stop me huh? / (JZ&KW)Who gon stop me huh?"
The darkness gets explosive here -- this is a case where the music and lyrics don't try to balance each other whatsoever. They work together to assault your ears. It sounds rough, and it's really good.
An alarm starts sounding around 1:57, leading to a changeover that Kanye leads with a more surreal verse:
"Yall weed purple / My money purple / Yall Steve Urkel / I’m Oprah circle / I wrote the verse / That I hope will hurt you."
Jay comes in at the end, addressing his two-world syndrome once again:
"I’m riding dirty / Trying to get filthy /Pablo Picasso/ Rothkos, Rilkes/ Graduated to the MOMA/And I did all of this/Without a diploma/ Graduated from the corner / Yall can play me / For a mother***in fool if you wanna / Street smart / And I’m book smart / Could have been a chemist / Cause I cook smart / Only thing that can stop me is me / And I’mma stop when the hook start."
The hook, "black cards, black cars... " starts up and ends abruptly with "black strap, you know what that's for," this time with no question mark.
LISTEN to "I Can't Stop" by Flux Pavillion:
This aggressive track takes its cue from dubstep, a darker, frenetic electronic music movement in Britain, producer Verse Simmonds told MTV News:
After getting a call from Bu Thiam, Def Jam's VP of A&R, to submit tracks for WTT, Simmonds and his production partner, Sham "Sak Pase" Joseph, immediately went to work. "What we did is, we locked in a week, we just went crazy on everything Jay and Kanye," Simmonds told MTV News. "I remember telling Sham, I was like, 'Yo, I think this dubstep stuff is going to be the next new flavor that everybody gotta be on. It gotta have a hip-hop feel to it still.' "
If you haven't heard of Swizz Beatz, here's a little to catch you up. He's a DJ, producer, rapper, painter, and fashion designer (check out his shoe design for Christian Louboutin).
He was a producer-in-residence at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts for the 2010-2011 school year. According to his professor bio:
As a producer he's created hits for a laundry list of music legends including Madonna, Britney Spears, Metallica, and Jay-Z. They seek him for his signature sound: brash instrumentals and futuristic beats layered with what's become his "sound mark:" clever, catchy sound-over's on a track.
Oh yeah, and he's married to Alicia Keys.
They touched upon the wild on track one, and by track eight we're fully in it. Swizz Beatz, who produced "Welcome to the Jungle," welcomes us to it, his voice coming in over sparse beats that turn ominous when Kanye takes over:
"I asked her where she wanna be when she 25 / She turned around and looked at me and said 'alive.'"
The beats here let the more charged words rise to the top, as Jay enters a darker place:
"My uncle died / My Daddy did too / Paralyzed by the pain / I can barely move / My nephew gone / My heart is torn / Sometimes I look to the sky / Ask why I was born / My faith in God / Everyday is hard/Every night is worse / That’s why I pray so hard."
Religion, which got a dose of skepticism on "No Church in the Wild," enters the picture again as a way of dealing with the pain of the jungle, so to speak.
"That's My Bitch" kicks it old-school with samples from “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” by James Brown, and a production value worthy of Q-Tip's name on it.
LISTEN to "Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved":
We've also got La Roux's Ely Jackson and Sneaky Sound System's Connie Mitchell singing the chorus:
"I've been waiting for a long long time / Just to get off and throw my hands up high / And live my life / And live my life / Just to get off and throw my hands up high."
Bon Iver's Justin Vernon comes out of left-field about one minutes and 45 seconds. He only stays for about 17 seconds, but it's an amazing 17 seconds, and all we can make out of what he says so far is, "Silly little vixen mixes 'til morning." Let us know in the comments if you have a better idea of the rest.
We'll be here all day.
We'll be back at a more normal hour in the morning, but leave us your thoughts on the album in the comments. We leave you with these images to haunt your dreams tonight, from Watch the Throne's digital booklet:
About that. The song is actually a heartfelt ode to their future sons, a promise to not let them end up "like your daddy that would never budge" (KW), and an apology from Jay for already ruining his son's life : Sorry junior, I already ruined ya / Cause you ain’t even alive, paparazzi pursuin’ ya."
The best part, though, has to be the reference to Kanye's comment back in 2005 that President Bush "doesn't care about black people" because of the way he dealt with Hurricane Katrina.
"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."
RZA produced "New Day," and the boys want you to know it. It opens with Kanye making a point of their bond:
"Me and the RZA connect / Yeah, me and the RZA connect."
This makes sense given the relationship between the rappers. Kanye has often been compared to RZA, a comparison the Wu-Tang member has no issues with.
"All good," RZA told MTV. "Kanye West, I got super respect for Kanye."
It wasn't always all roses between Jay-Z and the RZA, though. He told MTV:
"One day, Jay-Z [called] me on the phone," RZA recalled. "I was proud. ... More proud because at one time, it felt like our relationship was shaky over some old hip-hop grudge sh--. When he finished The Blueprint, I heard it and was like, 'Yo, this sh-- is dope.' I called him to congratulate him, and he said, 'You made the original Blueprint, yo.' I said, 'That's peace, yo.'"
Jay-Z repeats Kanye's "Me and the RZA connect" line, so we know they're all connecting and feeling good hip-hop vibes now.
RZA spoke Rolling Stone of his role in the collaboration:
"Kanye asked me to send tracks while they were in Australia," says the Wu-Tang Clan master. "I just thought I would send some shit that would be rugged. I know they can find the poppy, hip-hop places, but I wanted to send them some real edgy shit. Apparently they thought they were great – Kanye said, 'Send some more of that Wu shit!'"
"New Day," harkens back to the classics, with an edited, more reverb-y sample of “Feeling Good” as performed by Nina Simone and Hal Mooney.
"Sun in the sky you know how I feel / Breeze driftin' on by / Breeze driftin' on by / It's a new life for me, yeah / New life for me / Ooo ooh oh / And I'm feelin' / Birds flying high you know how I feel."
Simone's voice then gives way to an interesting instrumental fade out on the last 15 seconds of the track.
LISTEN to Nina Simone (minus Hal Mooney) sing "Feeling Good":
"Gotta Have It" is more than just a Bueller reference. Simply, it's about money as a driving force in the black community -- when you "gotta have it," it turns into a hot-button issue. Likewise, when you have a lot of it, your image suffers -- especially when you're being made to look like a fool:
Kanye begins, "Hello, hello, hello, white America, assassinate my character / Money matrimony, yea they tryna break the marriage up / Who gon act phony, or who gone try to embarrass ya."
This morphs into a dialogue on what desperation for money can lead to:
JZ: "Whassup, whassup, whassup, whassup, whassup motherf***er where my money at? / You ‘gon make me come down to your house where your mommy at / Mummywrap the kids, have ‘em cryin’ for they mommy back / Dummy that your daddy is, tell ‘em I just want my racks."
(KW) Racks on racks on racks / Maybachs on bachs on bachs on bachs on bachs."
"Who in that," Jay asks?
"Oh sh*t, it’s just blacks on blacks on blacks," Kanye replies. "Hundred stack."
Can you still rap about race issues when you have more money than anyone you're rapping about can relate to? There's a helplessness inherent here, but it's the only way they can express their solidarity in any kind of genuine way:
(JZ) I wish I could give you this feelin’ / I’m planking on a million / I’m riding through yo hood / You can bank I ain’t got no ceiling (KW) Made a left on Nostrand Ave., We in Bed Stuy (JZ) Made a right on 79th, I’m coming down South Shore Drive (KW) I remain Chi-town (JZ) Brooklyn ‘til I die."
"Gotta Have It" makes a Bueller reference, of all things. Jay begins:
"Hello, hello, hello, white America, assassinate my character / Money matrimony, yea they tryna break the marriage up / Who gon act phony, or who gone try to embarrass ya / Imma need a day off, I think I call Ferris up."
"Bueller had a Mueller, but I switched it for a Miele cause I’m richer."
Easily one of the best tracks off the album, "Otis" is a great display of Jay-Z and Kanye's humor. They may be filthy rich, but they're pretty incisive when they ridicule the fact:
KW, presumably referring to the paparazzi, jokes about his wealth:"They aint see me cause I pulled up in my other Benz
Last week I was in my other other Benz"
Pretty great, right? But it's almost immediately overshadowed by Jay's reply. The two are constantly one-upping each other on their call-and-response-style tracks. Kanye may have poked fun at his wealth, but Jay dismisses it with the acknowledgment that wealth breeds narcissism anyways, implication being, who cares about hiding from the paparazzi?:
"Photo shoot fresh, Looking like wealth, I’m about to call the paparazzi on myself."
Kanye gets his drawl on on "N***as in Paris":
"She said Ye can we get married at the maaaaaaaaaaaall? / I said look you need to crawl for you baaaaaaaaaaaall / Come and meet me in the bathroom staaaaaaaaaaaall / And show me why you deserve to have it aaaaaaaaaaaall."
Aside from drawling about girls in bathroom stalls, Kanye's also given some thought to Prince William's situation:
"Prince William ain’t do it right if you ask me, / Cause if I was him I would have married Kate & Ashley"
He continues with his ADD, any-thought-that-enters-my-brain rap:
"What’s Gucci my ni**a? / What’s Louie my killa? / What’s drugs my deala? / What’s that jacket, Margiela? / Doctors say I’m the illest / Cause I’m suffering from realness /Got my ni**as in Paris / And they going gorillas, huh!"
And then we get a little nod from our duo, acknowledging that perhaps they've lost us with all their wordplay. This newsflash comes via Will Ferrell, in a "Blades of Glory" voiceover:Jimmy (Jon Heder): "I don't even know what that means!"
Chazz (Will Ferrell): "No one knows what it means -- that's why it's provocative. It get's the people going!"
Moral of the story: senseless words can often be given higher meaning than they deserve, but it's OK if it gets us riled up.
Beyonce stops by on "Lift Off," taking the album to a poppier place already on track two:
"We gon take it to the moon / Take it to the stars / How many people you know can take it this far? / I’m super charged / Bout to take this whole thing to Mars."
... and it all ends with a countdown:
(Countdown) 20 seconds and counting... / T minus 15 seconds, guidance is internal / 12, 11, 10, 9, ignition sequence start / 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0, all engines running / Lift off, we have a lift off / Lift off."
Not so sure about that one.
Kanye takes this track to the next level, advocating for what sounds like no rules and free love:
"Coke on her black skin make a stripe like a zebra / I call that jungle fever / You will not control the three-some /.../ We formed a new religion / No sins as long as there’s permission / And deception is the only felon"
Then he spells it out for us:
"Two tattoos one read No Apologies, the other said Love Is Cursed By Monogamy / It’s somethin’ that the pastor don’t preach."