The first thing even minimally class-conscious listeners will notice about Watch the Throne—the highly anticipated collaboration between Kanye West and Jay-Z—is how obsessed it is with status in general and brands in particular. Benzes, Louboutins, Basquiats, and sundry other signifiers of wealth clog up almost every verse on the record, no matter which star is on the mic. The boasting isn't limited to the lyric sheet, either. The album's cover is graced with the classiest possible form of glitz: a design from Riccardo Tisci, he of the house of Givenchy. The whole thing seems like a rich-person sandwich straight out of an old Soviet propaganda movie—the filling made from a rare animal's bone marrow, nestled between truffles coated with a sugar glaze, all of it stuffed between slices of bread stolen from the proletariat. Gross, right?
The gaudiness of Watch the Throne would have raised eyebrows during any week in recessional 2011, though it seemed especially discordant the week after S&P's downgrading of America's credit-worthiness. Hua Hsu, in an essay for Grantland, noted the album's reliance on "income-gap raps," while no less an authority than Chuck D crafted a response video to the Otis Redding-sampling "Otis," called "Notice." "Millions, billions, trillions/ whips wheelin'/ is a million miles from what people's feelin," Chuck admonishes (after opening with a de rigueur "no disrespect" to our "rap heroes"). Can Watch the Throne really be this blind to what's going on in the world outside the Mercer?
Perhaps. But there are two kinds of rich man's rhymes on this album, and it's worth understanding how they differ. Just because both men talk about their riches doesn't mean they're talking about them in the same way.
Kanye, depressingly, seems to be content with his shopping list as an end in itself. The guy who once backed up his Katrina-era criticism of Bush 43 by promising to ask his manager how much he could donate to victims now appears to be drained of whatever empathy he once possessed. He posits a "new religion" on the opening song "No Church in the Wild," a religion in which there will be no sexual sin "as long as there's permission" from the women in his threesomes. He then goes on to diss teachers and preachers for refusing to admit that monogamy is a drag. It's a far cry from the self-critical analysis of materialism and selfishness that he offered on 808s and Heartbreak. Further back, during the days of "Jesus Walks," West told us he hoped for salvation through prayer. Now, on "Otis," he says he knows he's never going to hell—because he wrote "Jesus Walks."
So, in a reversal of sorts, it's up to the normally unflappable Jay to have some trouble on his mind. While Kanye's verse on "Made in America" is about overcoming mockery at the hands of the South Park guys, Jay shouts out a conception of American success that extends beyond his own private Manifest Destiny. Of all the fine things Jay informs us he has enjoyed, he sounds most grateful to have once tasted his grandmother's banana pudding. He isn't just showing us that he remembers where he comes from; he's also letting us know that he can still find value, and sustenance, in something other than a luxury brand. Later in the track, we even catch a glimpse of him wondering whether he can pass on anything as authentic and homegrown as that pudding to his own children.
"The scales was lopsided/ I'm just restorin' order" Jay says of his capitalistic rise. But he also recognizes that his own success is not enough. On "Murder to Excellence," he says, "Only spot a few blacks the higher we go. … We're gonna need a million more." (Kanye joins him in that sentiment, briefly, before departing to buy Gucci shoes at the mall.) In "Welcome to the Jungle," Jay notes how our institutions are ill-disposed to address the inequality that rests at the heart of his verses. "Where the fuck is the press?/ Where the fuck is the Pres?/ Either they know or don't care/ I'm fucking depressed." For all his bragging about "planking on a million," it's good to see that Jay knows there's some dirt that can't so simply be brushed off the national shoulder.
Especially since Kanye's runaway solipsism has vitiated his occasional ability to make a decent point. On the song "New Day," Kanye revisits (again) the pain of his Katrina-Bush moment, revealing that it's left him so jaded that he's done trying to do the right thing. Like Jay, Kanye is also thinking here about what he'll pass on to his children—but all he can come up with is bitterness. Of his future son West says: "And I'll never let him hit the telethon/ Even if people dyin and the world ends." In an earlier line, Kanye issues a sarcastic promise to make his son a Republican "so everybody know he love white people."
Both Kanye and Jay-Z are to some degree in thrall to a state of mind that John Keats once described as the "egotistical sublime," though only the latter is aware that acquisition for its own sake isn't enough. Jay not only makes Watch the Throne tolerable—he also suggests another way of thinking about the title. With Kanye, the gaze goes in one direction: We're meant to look at his throne while the MC barks out verses "that I hope will hurt you." Jay doesn't mind us looking at the king, precisely, but he's not above taking a second look at the structure that props him up—and with a critical eye.