Thursday, August 25, 2011

Kanye West, Jay-Z - Watch the Throne

Unlike films, listening to music is an intensely personal experience, and one whose impact varies significantly with environment and context. Listening to an album in your car is a completely different experience than enjoying it through your headphones, and to this effect, very few albums have the excitement and honesty to be played in both these places. It should come as no surprise that Watch the Throne sounds pretty good in traffic, but you might be surprised to hear that it also excels at my desk through my iPod.

In fact, I would go so far to say that in order to properly evaluate the album, you need to listen to it in both contexts. When I first got a hold of WTT, I threw on my Nano on the way out the door and listened to it five times at work, marveling at the amazing beats but feeling a little turned off by the heavy content. Too many songs laid on the religious and black power undertones way too thick, and I found myself over-analyzing all of the lyrics as a result. After a week or so, I had already cherry-picked my favorite songs and shoehorned them into my Running Mix and was perfectly content to never listen to the other songs again. It wasn't until I saw the "Otis" video that I realized I was overlooking a critical element of WTT that changed the entire album for me.

The Spike Jonze directed video for 'Otis' is genius in its simplicity, perfectly capturing the absolutely astounding luxury-filled lives that Kanye and Jay lead, but also highlighting how much darn FUN they have. Sure they are taking blowtorches and saws to a $350,000 car, and they have 4 supermodels sliding around in the backseat, but beyond that, they seem like otherwise normal guys having an incredible time. They giggle, they pose goofily for the camera, they hang off one another like brothers do when dad takes the video camera out. Sure their car spits flames and they seem to have a private track for donuts, but the whole thing isn't far removed from the best friends in Bellflower who created their own fire-breathing monster in 'Medusa' on a considerably tighter budget. The Otis video underlined the magic that sparked the album in the first place; that Kanye and Jay-Z have nothing to prove to anyone, and whatever came out of their partnership had to capture that 'fun' before all else.

I still think that there are some heavy themes on WTT, but they no longer detract from the experience as a whole, feeling instead like inevitable topics. Maybe if they had slipped in a few guest verses, they never would have mined such dark material, but there's something pretty special about a 16-song album with absolutely zero hip-hop features. That sort of thing just doesn't happen anymore, and goes to show you the creative excitement these two are able to draw out of one another. What Kanye first announced as a 5-song EP, and no fan ever took seriously, actually came out AND didn't embarrass any of the parties involved. That is an impressive feat.

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