In the world of rap, the names don’t get much bigger than Jay-Z and Kanye West. Jay-Z has propelled 11 albums to the pinnacle of Billboard’s Top 200 chart. He likes to style himself as Hov or Hova these days—short for Jehovah, his subtle way of telling the world he is rap’s supreme god. West is the genre’s reigning L’Enfant terrible. He’s scored four No. 1 albums, 14 Grammy awards and scads of critical accolades. And he shares Jay-Z’s Christ complex, it seems, showing up on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a crown of thorns.
So when Kanye let it slip last summer that he and Jay-Z were working on an album together, the hip-hop world must’ve figured the collaboration—resulting in a supergroup sometimes called The Throne—could border on the divine.
But Watch the Throne is far from an immaculate confection. The results are, frankly, all too human.
It’s not that Jay-Z and Kanye don’t have some good things to say. On “New Day,” both talk about raising their “sons” right and, in a glancing way, express regret over their own misspent youth. “And I’ll never let my son have an ego,” Kanye raps of his hypothetical boy. “He’ll be nice to everyone, wherever we go.” It’s a little snide, a little defensive, and yet there’s an inkling of sincerity here: “Just want ’em to be someone people like/Don’t want ’em to be hated all the time, judged.” And then he adds, “I’ll never let ’em ever hit a strip club/I learned the hard way, that ain’t the place to get love.” Jay-Z chimes in with, “Sorry, junior, I already ruined ya/’Cause you ain’t even alive, paparazzi pursuin’ ya/Sins of a father make your life 10 times harder.” But he tells us that he’ll never leave the lad, “‘Cause my dad left me and I promise never repeat him.”
Both express anguish when it comes to street violence—particularly black-on-black killings. “It’s time for us to stop and redefine black power,” Kanye pleads on “Murder to Excellence.” “Forty-one souls murdered in 50 hours.” Both men express a strange sense of fragility on “Welcome to the Jungle,” with Jay-Z seeming to lament the drugs so lauded on the rest of the release: “Champagne for the pain/Weed for the low/G‑‑d‑‑n, I’m so high/Where the f‑‑‑ did I go?/I’m losing myself.”
And still on that same track, they seem to call out to heaven for answers: “My faith in God,” Jay-Z tells us, “Every day is hard/Every night is worse/That’s why I pray so hard.”
A sense of faith does indeed weave its way through many of these tracks—but it’s a curious, inconsistent and often downright disturbing brand of it. On the opener, “No Church in the Wild,” Jay-Z explicitly compares himself and Kanye to Jesus, spitting, “Jesus was a carpenter, Yeezy laid beats/Hova flow the Holy Ghost/Get the h‑‑‑ up out you seats.” “Why I Love You” draws another parallel between Jay-Z and Jesus with this: “Please, Lord/Forgive him/For these n-ggas/Not know/What they/Do.” They call out “lies on the lips of priests” while saluting “cocaine seats, all white like I got the whole thing bleached.” “The Joy” includes, “This beat deserves Hennessy, a bad b‑‑ch and a bag of weed/The holy trinity.” On “Made in America,” Jay-Z recalls how he got his “liberty choppin’ grams up,” praying that “God understand us.”
On many of the album’s 16 tracks (including four bonus songs), Jay-Z, now married, falls back on his supposed days on the streets when he hustled drugs to make his way. And Kanye, raised in a middle-class home, tries to boost his street cred by sharing stories about his modern-day exploits—and his truly appalling view of women. “She said, ‘Ye, can we get married at the mall?'” he tells us on “Ni**as in Paris.” His response? “Come and meet me in the bathroom stall/And show me why you deserve it all.” On “That’s My B‑‑ch,” he compares his companion to a dog and treats her far worse, belittling her at every turn. Never does Kanye suggest that women are anything more than possessions (even bragging about how many he owns).
References to sex are explicit at times, mocking monogamy and making passing reference to orgies. There’s a line about lesbianism. And the foul language used is so frequent it’s impossible to count the rapid-fire f-, s- and n-words as they pound your ears. The fact that three of the song titles contain slurs or obscenities (“N**gas in Paris,” “That’s My B‑‑ch” and “Illest Motherf**ker Alive”) says quite a lot about what’s contained inside them. A fourth track’s title functions as an acronym for another curse, this one with a sexual suggestion: “H-A-M” stands for “hard as a m‑‑‑‑‑f‑‑‑er.”
I could go on. I could call out more sacrilege, more sleazy sex and a whole lot more swearing. While it contains a few nods to a more positive view on race relations and an occasional righteous thought about faith, Watch the Throne is, as The Hollywood Reporter puts it, “made agnostic by Jay and Kanye’s Robb Report raps.” That means this album is consumed by only one real purpose: to trumpet the rap wonderfulness and explosive success of its creators. References to Maybachs and wide-faced Rolexes pock songs like teenage acne. “I only like green faces,” Kanye admits—compromising even his fleeting concern with race.
It’s ironic, really, when you think about how desperate it seems Jay-Z and Kanye are to remind us how rich and famous and powerful and desirable they are … and yet how angry and sad and abused and misunderstood they tell us they are too. Watch the Throne has a message, all right—but maybe not the one they intended. After listening to the album, it’s pretty clear that the life of a Lamborghini-driving, Hennessy-swilling superstar—at least one who’s consumed with consumption—isn’t all that great. In fact, it makes me feel a little sorry for them both.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.