On July 8, 2011, Jay-Z hosted an intimate listening session for the looming, game changing, genre bending Hip-Hop opus Watch The Throne. Roughly 20 people were invited to the exclusive event, which interestingly enough included the two teenage New Yorkers that purchased the first two copies of the album on Amazon.com's preorder. They were there along with their parents, who were gracious enough to tolerate a long evening for the sake of their kids. Where to begin? There was so much to absorb of the evening so I'll write this similar to the way Watch The Throne was crafted...free-flowing and without rules.
There were some ground rules for the session though. 1) No live tweeting. We could say we were there and that's about it. One journo from The Fader was kicked out with the swiftness for tweeting specifics. 2) No quoting exact lyrics in write ups. Why? Because, although we heard a lot, Watch The Throne is not finished. Lyrics may change. 3) No specific song titles. They aren't set either.
So, here is the song-by-song rundown of Watch The Throne.
Song # 1
In the first song, Beyonce completely blasts off to a beat laced with heavy synths. Kanye bursts onto the track, weaving in and out of autotune and various vocal distortions. Very off beat, but in a good way. Jay-Z follows up flowing to very short or truncated verses. Clearly, Beyonce is the ancho to a song that ebbs and flows until it blasts off in a spaceship counting down. (This was actually the second song, but the first seemed to be a partial record that got hacked off.)
Song # 2
Bouncy is the first word that comes to mind with Song # 3. The track almost sounds like a traditional southern Hip-Hop record. Jay's flowing much faster, sort of in the vein of "Big Pimpin'." Jay's rapping double time and then yields to 'Ye, who raps at a slower pace. The song concludes with the crash of a slowed down menacing beat, reminscent of 80s instrumentalists Art of Noise.
By now, Jay is bouncing to the beats that he's manning the session from the Mac Book. He stops most of the songs abruptly even.
Song # 3
The fourth song begins with a long, bluesy Otis Redding sample...which gets chopped up lovely. Jay and 'Ye go back and forth, almost bar for bar. Straight spittin.... I personally felt is was similar to the way Biggie and Jay spit over "Brooklyn's Finest," but my homey Aqua completely disagreed. Nevertheless, they went in.
Song # 4
Or is that song 4? Anyway, the next song was wrought with melancholy if you only went according to the track. Upon further examination, Jay-Z and Kanye trade lyrics about raising their future kids. To attempt to regurgitate the content wouldn't do the song justice. The song is a very honest and vulnerable look at something the pair long for, but not commonly addressed.
Song # 5
Song # 6 had the whole room bobbing their head in unison to a slow, dragging epic track. Feels European, the United Kingdom to be specific.
Song # 6
This one was a joint where Kanye and Jay rap over a singer's voice trading bars every 2-4 lines.
Song # 7
This song was my absolute favorite. The beat went super hard with Kanye and Jay asking aggressively, "Who gon' stop me, huh?" This song was rooted in a bassline that was deeply monophonic. At the end, the pair throw the listeners for a loop and jump off the path. Suddenly, the beat changes, random instruments come in and out of this living, breathing song.
Song # 8
Song 8 feels very African in nature. Kanye comes in singing for a couple bars and then Jay starts rapping. Interestingly enough, they are rapping about Black on Black violence. Black Panther Fred Hampton gets a mention. An unlikely positive song.
Song # 9
Sounds like Frank Ocean is the new golden boy...maybe? Malcolm X, Betty Shabazz, Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott get nods on song 9. This inspirational song references Jesus and centers on making it as a success in America. Kanye used a particularly clever metaphor. He raps about making his beats and selling them to Jay at the early part of his career. But they says he now "gets high on his own supply," the dope being his own music.
Song # 10
Number 10 offers the operatic synths laced with a rock sample talking about love. The track goes hard. The beats elevates and suddenly...the album is over. The ending is more abrupt than anything I've ever heard.
Jay gets asked if this version of the album was the regular or the deluxe version. The Brooklyn don doesn't speak on it. He simply cues up two more songs that knock. Jay then says, "Does that answer your question?" Room explodes into spontaneous laughter. Jay also let the room hear a song with Swizz Beatz that he admitted might not make the album. He also indicated that "H.A.M.," the first song he and Kanye released may not make the album either.
Overall, Watch The Throne is one of the most interesting pieces of Hip-Hop I've heard in a long time. Many people asked is it "classic" or is it "dope as expected." I believe, to properly enjoy the album, they are going to need to shed expectations and erase what they know. I already can see there will be a segment of the population that simple will not "get" this album.
But, that is the beauty of Watch The Throne. Everybody won't love it and others will swear by it. It will be the topic of debates and hate. Through it all, its very cool to see Hip-Hop artist evolving creatively. Fearlessly.