In sifting through the troves of writings from the pop culture cognoscenti regarding Kanye West and Jay-Z's album Watch The Throne, two dominant critiques emerged. One, this opus is masterpiece of opulence, decadence, or whatever other terms one can find that mean boastfully materialistic. Two, this album's bombast sits outside of the nation's zeitgeist, particularly given the nation's political and economic turmoil of the last few weeks.
Are these themes fair to point out? Sure. Much of Watch The Throne's lyrics pay homage to lifestyles most people cannot replicate, absent some CGI and the NZT pill from the movie Limitless. These assertions, however, are easy to make, and frankly, are the equivalent of political red meat for critics. It is sexy yet cliché to assert the trope of excess as it relates to hip hop, and overshadows other themes that merit equally robust dialogue, especially given the ongoing debate of hip hop's influence within the African-American landscape.
As such, a number of interesting concepts conveyed within Watch the Throne's lyrics sit well within the mosaic of conversations that African-Americans carry out in various settings of debate throughout Black America. While it would certainly be a mistake to conflate lyrical dexterity with wisdom, I think it is fair to point out occurrences that potentially expand the discourse. Here are five:
1) Opulence as re-appropriation -- Watch The Throne is full of "luxury raps;" but is there a method to the madness? Rhymes Jay-Z in "Illest Motherf**ker Alive," "Basquiats, Warhols serving as my muses/My house is like a museum, so I see em when I'm peeing/Usually you have this much taste you European/That's the end of that way of thinking." Could the objective in trumpeting these particular icons and artifacts be to assert that for the uninitiated, an aesthetically cosmopolitan worldview should extend beyond an Anglo-European guise and focus?
2) Spirituality vs. Secularity -- the relationships between African-Americans and religious theology have always been strong. West and Jay-Z address tensions between it and alternate "worldy" perspectives in "No Church in the Wild." Hov (shorthand for "Jay-Hova") questions the parameters of piety ("Is pious pious cause God loves pious?") and the extent to which God's mercy is accessible to marginalized souls ("I'm wondering if a thug's prayers reach"). West challenges conventional definitions of sin ("We formed a new religion/No sins as long as there's permission/and deception is the only felony;" and later, "Two tattoos one read No Apologies/the other said Love Is Cursed By Monogamy"). The question: how applicable versus anachronistic are specific religious tenets to black folk in today's landscape?
3) The politics of abandonment -- the plight of the black male has been well documented, to which Jay-Z and Kanye West take note. "Murder to Excellence" explores one possible reason: "What's the life expectancy for black guys?/The system's working effectively, that's why" (West). In "Welcome to the Jungle," Jay-Z raps: "My tears are tatted/My rag in my pocket/I'm looking for love/I know somebody got it... Where the f**k is the press? Where the f**k is the Pres? Either they know or don't care, I'm f**king depressed." How effective has the African-American community been in effectively addressing the needs of individuals who feel trapped in their hardships, currently or otherwise? What is the ultimate role of government as a facilitator in this process?
4) The politics of gender -- I have encountered many women who have stopped listening to hip hop altogether due to the sexist lyrics. Watch The Throne does little to settle the matter one way or the other. Is it possible to reconcile arguing for more inclusive standards of beauty while employing one of the most controversial female epithets within the song title (Jay-Z, "That's My Bi**h"); or, laud women while objectifying them within a biblical reference ("Damn Yeezy, they all gotta be dimes?/Well, Adam gave up a rib so mine better be prime;" West, "Primetime")? What role does context play? In the name of gender equanimity, should a lyric like "thinking about the girl in all leopard/Who was rubbing the wood like Kiki Sheppard" (West, No "Church in the Wild") be complemented somewhere by lyrics that place a male in an equally subordinate sexual position? What should the appropriate gender balance within hip hop lyrics look like? Or in the greater context of inequality, are we missing the bigger picture (as Jay-Z once rhymed, "when Jena 6 don't exist tell them that's when I'll stop saying bi**h!")?
5) The politics of race -- Irrespective of Jay-Z and Kanye West's status as hip hop and popular culture giants, they are still Black in America. What it means to be African-American in this country, despite all of the post-racial rhetoric, still matters significantly. In fact, it is only within the context of race that the "heavy are the black heads that wear crowns" trope that is amply expressed in Watch The Throne gets traction. "On Gotta Have It, New Day," and "Primetime," West battles against the angry black man diagnosis he garnered via his outspoken irreverence. From "Primetime": "Coloring out of the line/Cause they don't want nobody that's colored out of the lines/So I'm late as a motherf**ker, colored people time." As race runs part and parcel with power structures in this country, the color dynamic contextualizes every point addressed in this article. If this album serves as any indication, a post-racial context has yet to materialize for Mr. Carter and Mr. West.
By most measures, Watch The Throne is enjoying all the makings of a great hip hop and pop culture moment. The spoils of success clearly fare well in this album, but other themes emerge that give way to equally vigorous analysis. Jay-Z provided an argument for deeper inquiry of hip hop lyrics when he released his book Decoded last year. As we continue to assess the impact of this album artistically and culturally, we should continue to expand on that vision.