Watch + Listen: Who’s Watching the Throne?

by Kevin on August 12, 2011

OK, so I’m watching the throne. Now what?

Over the roar of passing trucks, down I-294 near Chicago, Shawn Carter, a.k.a. rap superstar Jay-Z, is extolling the virtues of being Jay-Z. “So I ball so hard mo’fuckas wanna fine me / But first niggas gotta find me / What’s 50 grand to a mo’fucka like me / Can you please remind me?” I try to think of a response, but nothing comes to mind.

First, I lied. I’m trying to watch the throne, but I have to keep my eyes on the road. There’s a Toyota Corolla about 30 yards ahead, and I have a feeling the driver is going to change lanes without signaling. I ease off the gas just as the Corolla swerves into my lane. I tap the brakes.

At the moment, Jay-Z and Kanye West aren’t with me; they’re in Paris, and if they are to be believed, shit’s crazy. My mind wanders to Champs-Élysées, where the two musicians are throwing their diamonds in the air, hardly even watching as they land on models in designer clothes drinking top shelf liquor. They trade verses effortlessly over a monstrous beat that sounds like something out of Blade Runner. Shit is crazy.

Shit. Less than a quarter left. I think I saw it at the Philips for $3.79. That’s not too bad.

* * *

“Coke on her black skin made a stripe like a zebra
I call that jungle fever”

– Kanye West, “No Church in the Wild”

Later that night I’m at my desk and Mrs. -Z, a.k.a. Beyoncé Knowles, is enthusiastic about taking us on a tour of the galaxy in “Lift Off.” Now that NASA has retired the space shuttle, the market is wide open for commercial and private shuttle trips into space, perhaps as far as the moon. “Lift Off” doesn’t specifically promise that Jay and Ye are going to be spending some of their Throne dollars on trips to space, but you could see it, couldn’t you?

I finish a plate of reheated noodles and take the dishes to the sink. It’s about 9:30. I consider getting some reading done but it suddenly hits me how tired I am, so I decide to let the album play out (again) and get a beer from the fridge. Closing my eyes, I wonder if Kanye West is actually having a cocaine party, or if the imagery of “coke on her black skin” is simply a metaphor that helps reiterate the “urban jungle” imagery that appears throughout the album. There’s even a track that shares its name (and little else) with a Guns ‘N Roses song, “Welcome to the Jungle.” The jungle, it seems, is Kanye’s life.

The album plays until about 10, and I decide I should get some sleep. Jay and Kanye — at least, the figures in their songs — are probably just starting their night. The club party is jumping off, particularly now that they’ve arrived. They’ll have a private section, the bar tab will be monstrous, and they will probably tip extremely well. Later they’ll have an after-party, which will end a couple of hours after sunrise. Then they’ll crash, sleep it off, and wake up to do it all again. Shit’s crazy.

Who’s supposed to be watching the throne?

* * *

“They aint see me cause I pulled up in my other Benz
Last week I was in my other other Benz”

– Kanye West, “Otis”

The US recently received a credit downgrade, with the inevitable roller coaster stock market to follow. There’s rioting and panic on the streets of London (credit to Morrissey). The Syrian government continues to crack down on dissent, jailing and killing citizens fighting for a better existence. Is this really the right time to release an gold-plated album that reads like a copy of the Robb Report?

In all fairness, it’s ridiculous to criticize rappers — especially Jay and Ye — for songs about luxury with more product placement than a James Bond movie. I don’t know if Kanye actually has more than one Mercedes-Benz, although it’s certainly plausible, but it doesn’t strike me as disingenuous either way. Even if he doesn’t, he could, and that’s the point: that hip-hop has made an enormous place for itself through defining success as the accumulation of and subsequent bragging about really fucking expensive things whether or not those things were actually obtained.

On “Otis,” Kanye uses the phrase “luxury rap,” in which the verses are a catalog of high end items and brands — Hermes, Cuban cigars, Maybach — that the rapper owns or aspires to own. It’s an Amazon wishlist, of sorts, if Amazon could only be accessed on diamond-studded iPads connected to wi-fi in Monte Carlo.

Alarm clock. Is it Wednesday?

* * *

Watch the Throne was written and recorded by Kanye and Jay almost exclusively, and produced by Ye and a few of his close collaborators. They originally recorded material in the south of France, Australia, Abu Dhabi, and Los Angeles, before finally settling on a hotel in New York. There are very few guests. The majority of the album features Jay and Ye trading verses, complementing and agreeing with each other, and, from what I can hear, having a blast. It’s a very good album.

But there’s a nagging voice in my head. I see Jay and Ye in their hotel/studio in Tribeca, standing over a mixing board and nodding. Then Ye fiddles with some knobs, they nod some more, and some others stand in the back and nod too. It’s collaborative, but it’s also exclusive.

The line is repeated several times: Watch the throne. I’m listening to the lyrics, trying to hear the key phrase that will make it all click. I can’t figure it out. “You are now watching the throne / Don’t let me into my zone.” But that’s the point, right? Kanye should be in his zone if the album is to be as good as it portends to be.

Who is supposed to be watching the throne?

* * *

It’s some time later. I’m stepping out of the shower. It hits me. It’s a line from “Murder to Excellence.” Jay-Z says, “Niggas watching the throne, very happy to be / Power to the people, when you see me, see you.” Jay-Z and Kanye are us. We are them. We should strive to be more like them: material wealth, spotlight, energy.

But it’s a misdirect. It’s false. While they think they’re encouraging us, the listeners, to watch the throne and be inspired, they aren’t actually interested in whether that happens. Because they know, as do we all, that only a minuscule fraction will ever make it to the level they celebrate. They will continue to make records, make money, and buy things, and we will listen to them and enjoy it. And we will think that they know how appreciative we are.

But the Jay-Z and Kanye of Watch the Throne aren’t paying attention to anything outside that Tribeca studio. They aren’t aware of gas prices, or the national debt. They don’t drive themselves to work, but they do drive luxury cars around with no real destination. They may have seen something about the London or Syria on their plasma screens, but who knows? The caricatures created for Watch the Throne are shallow and vain, and when they pretend to care about social issues they are upended by their own flamboyant braggadocio.

Kanye West and Jay-Z are the only ones watching the throne, and that’s exactly what they intended. Their album is one of the best of 2011, but it wasn’t made for us — Ye and Jay made it for each other. They’ve simply allowed us to listen in.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Michelle August 12, 2011 at 5:58 pm

That was an awesome post! Gotta agree they aren’t living in the real world!


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