Let's pretend to pretend that you've never heard of Jay-Z and Kanye West. Partly because this appears to be the only way people can enjoy them -- especially the latter -- anymore. "Real rap fans," as they say, are so sick of these two, and rap production has gotten so cheap and insular (be it the Dirty South resurgence or collapse of the industry), that many haters expressed shock at the mere fact that this year's polarizing collaboration Watch the Throne wielded a single that sampled Otis Redding. This is supposed to represent grotesque opulence, they charge.
Never mind the fact it doesn't sound opulent. The minimal track boasts no chorus and barely any music beyond said sample, which is mostly an avant-garde cut-up of grunts and atonal moans removed from linear melodic context. And the tune only lives for an un-excessive 2:58. Would someone who's never heard of these people call this opulent? Their brags, maybe -- Jay's "five passports/ I'm never going to jail," in particular.
But mostly they'd be lauded as clever big dreamers. Because dreamers is what they are -- I'm pretty sure Jay isn't in possession of five passports. I'm also pretty sure if there's a hell, Kanye's not exempt from it because he recorded "Jesus Walks." And I'm pretty sure Kanye's Jon Brion-orchestrated Late Registration sounds more expensive, as well as Jay's Kanye-orchestrated The Blueprint. Both albums are from before they were as rich as they wanted to sound. They still deserve to connect with the dreaming audience. What's so perplexing about hip hop fans' cycle of boredom and excitement is that their ADHD is treated with respect. Watch the Throne is the same thing these two have been celebrated for their entire careers, coming from a richer but no less imaginative place. And if anything, Jay's at least more conscious of the middle and lower classes than he ever was. Kanye's a little preoccupied with the same woman issues that have plagued his last two also very good albums, only Jay's taken up the burden of balancing that with charm and self-awareness.
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Many people love the album and they're not wrong. But it sucks that I have to point out how great it is in a vacuum: the eclectic, weird, imaginatively-sampled beats ("Murder to Excellence" has an out-of-tune guitar strum straight off Beck's Mellow Gold, "Gotta Have It" is vintage Timbaland found-exotica) and occasional social-realist analysis (especially Jay's vignette of his grandmother catching him cooking crack, played for laughs) are just fuller than the experience you'll get listening to say, the A$AP Rocky album.
But that's not monetary excess you're hearing, that's creative excess. Watch the Throne's closest sonic relative is probably Mos Def's The Ecstatic, which didn't sound expensive at all. Yet it was similarly preoccupied with ingrained instrumental hooks rather than choruses, and political sketches versus coherent declarations. And both albums are weirder than anyone who avoids the super-famous on principle would suspect. When Waka Flocka Flame's Flockaveli won not just commercial, but critical plaudits last year, many sneered that not all rap is for everyone. And of course, great narrow music has been made. But Kanye and Jay aren't just rich because they like money. They're rich because they're grand entertainers, shapers of melody and dissonance, tellers of great, occasionally fucked-up comedy.
Sometimes they make all-out mistakes, like Jay's Occupy the Streets t-shirts and Kanye's no-longer-cute award show interruptions. Once in a while they care deeply about something and feel the need to say so, and once in a while they make race or pussy jokes. I don't think that sounds detached from economic reality at all. In fact, it sounds rather middle class to me.
Jay-Z and Kanye West play Staples Center Sunday, December 11 through Tuesday, December 13.