Y’all know we have been watching The Throne fairly closely and last night–a few hours ago, really–we were lucky enough to attend an exclusive listening session for the forthcoming Kanye & Jay-Z magnum opus (drops today or one week from today, depending who you believe) at the Hayden Planetarium inside New York’s American Museum of Natural History. “Listening Session” maybe doesn’t cover it, though, since the immersive experience came with an IMAX light show and also had a surreal performance art dimension to it.
The invite was for 6pm but up until 9:15 I would have described it as the worst music industry clusterfuck I have ever had the displeasure to attend: the line was glacially slow, phones were confiscated and movement between the VIP area and two seatings in the planetarium’s theater was handled both mysteriously and rudely. Nothing was ever actually announced or communicated, full-on stampedes (ever seen people stampede and still try to act cool at the same time?) between two different waiting areas, packed elevators, and two different theater entrances being initiated by panicked rumors from the confused model types who circulated back and forth, desperate to get close to the stars.
The end result, however, was worth it.
In the end Kanye only appeared to press play and then thank everybody when the lights came up (Jay never appeared outside the VIP area, though he stayed long enough to get his picture taken and prove he was there). What follows is a track-by-track impression of Watch the Throne as we saw and heard it under the dome of the planetarium.
“No Church in the Wild” f/ Frank Ocean – The first track starts in darkness, Ocean’s voice crooning over a relentless bassline “What’s a king to a God / a god to a non-believer…?” Later we hear the words “your love is my scripture.” But, possibly inspired by Frank O’s novacane swag, (he sounds more like a star in the making than ever) The Throne talk more about white powder than love or holy wine. Jay compares his influence to “the rock / got the whole game bleached.” Kanye adds: “Coke on black skin got her striped like a zebra / I call that jungle fever.”
Constellations twinkle in the artificial sky of the planetarium theater and the template for the album is established. It feels like a Kanye record in terms of musical vision—with artful arrangements and a rock-opera sense of the dramatic–but Jay leads off the rapping, setting the lyrical pace and a certain dark momentum.
“Lift Off” (f/ Beyoncé) – Beyonce’s voice belts “Take it to the moon and stars, takin’ it to Mars” over a bassline so thick it is almost Sleng Teng, as actual moons and stars wheel overhead and rave beeps count out in “you’re a jerk” time.
“N**gas in Paris” – Mosty a mantra of “That shit crack / ball so hard” amplified a million times by the oh-shit, geek-out effect of the bass drop being synched to the explosion of a dino-killing comet burning up on reentry to the atmosphere, then wreaking havoc across Earth’s surface.
“Otis” (f/ Otis Redding) – A lot’s been said already but I’ll just add this: this might be the happiest record on the album. And watching the milky way morph and pulse to an Otis Redding loop is a little bit like the cosmic and prehistoric diversions of Terence Malick’s Tree of Life—like: this shit is amazing but what the hell is it doing in this movie?
“Gotta Have It” – Kanye starts off with “Hello white America, assassinate my character…” over a vocal sample so high and eerie it could be a tribal chorus of Deep Forest-style pygmy voices, punctuated with an almost undecipherable punch-phrase that could be: “what you need?” This whole album is going to go hard.
“New Day” – An auto-tune voice that is not Frank Ocean…the chords are familiar but not recognizable yet. Kanye: “I’ll never let my son have an ego / I make sure he act nice wherever we go / Maybe even make him be a Republican…” Jay matches his father-anxieties, closing out the song with: “My dad left me and I promised never to repeat him…” then repeats the phrase three or four times for emphasis. The hook-voice is now recognizable as a Nina Simone interpolation: “It’s a new day / it’s a new life for me” over whale-song guitar riffs you would expect from a Pink Floyd record.
“Prime Time” – Mostly registers as a fast break, like a sped-up “DWYCK,” and is cut pretty short, either an interlude or edited for this presentation.
“Welcome to The Jungle” – Beat seems Cam’ron & Vado-inspired. The voice that says “Welcome to jungle” could be Swizz Beats. Jay’s most memorable line is “My tears are tatted / rag in my pocket” and the overall theme seems to be the existential crisis of a gangster who escapes “the life,” the depression that comes with success.
“Who Gon’ Stop Me” – “I Can’t stop” (could be Pusha T’s voice?) Kanye comes the closest here to the juvenile lyrical genius that is his trademark: “Ixnay off the dixnay / That’s pig latin, bitchnay.” (A star storm rains down from the IMAX). Jay raps: “Black car, black bra, black strap / You know what that’s for.” The bass is dubstep or crunk at its most psychedelic. “The only thing that can stop me is me.”
“Murder to Excellence” – One title for what is really two tracks, “Black on Black Murder” and “Black Excellence,” a meditation on the “first and worst” status of black America. “We weren’t even supposed to be here,” Jay raps “So I’m just celebrating my post-demise.” Kanye recounts Fred Hampton’s death at the hands of the police and compares the number of deaths in Chicago and Iraq on a given day. Kanye hits some of his best balling-but-depressed lines with: “ain’t nothing on the news but the blues / go to the mall, buy some Gucci / now ain’t nothing new but the shoes.” The music changes for the “excellence” part which ends humbly on “Black Excellence, truly yours…” and rides out on a tough dancehall pattern.
“Sweet Baby Jesus” (f/ Frank Ocean) – A sweet melody that might be the choice for single, if only so it can win a Grammy. Frank O sings the black hagiography of “Brother Malcolm / Queen Betty / Sweet Baby Jesus — we made it in America.”
This one brings the themes of the whole album together. Watch the Throne is definitely an opus of some kind—maybe an examination of the black experience attacking it kind of the way a Scorcese or Coppolla film does the Italian; instead of shying away from the stereotypes and gangsterisms, dive into them to find the universal; the aspiration, the doubt, the pride and shame, even the family values. Two thirds in, the album gets heavy– not in the way an M.O.P. or Mobb Deep album ever did–but almost heavy as in metal, even though the clean production makes it dark, aggressive pop rather than recognizable rock.
“Why I Love You (f/ Mr. Hudson)” – Feels more like a PS than a closer and ends abruptly with: “Lord forgive ‘em for these n**gas know not what they do.” And the theater goes black.