Remembering JAY-Z & Kanye West's 'Watch the Throne' Era
JAY-Z & Kanye West's Watch the Throne was more than just an album. It was a moment — a time capsule of an era when the two biggest, culturally defining personalities on the planet reigned with unquestioned supremacy in pop culture.
In 2011, JAY-Zand Kanye West were the most renowned names in hip-hop. JAY-Z’s lyrical genius bequeathed an immense discography that ranks him among the all-time greats and a business portfolio that compelled him to declare, in 2005, “I 'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man!" Kanye’s production ingenuity launched him into superstardom as one of the most influential producers ever and his creative dexterity extended into the world of fashion where he was steadily building an empire. Riding a tidal wave of cultural capital, the timing was impeccable for the two to release an album together. That album would be their game-changing Watch The Throne — an event album that would dominate pop culture for months and lead to the fracturing of one of the great creative unions of our time.
After releasing My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — a bona fide classic — in 2010, Kanye was at his artistic apex. He curated a bolder, bigger stadium sound that evolved from his signature soul samples. Kanye's updated sound was influenced by progressive rock and was melded with sophisticated orchestral arrangements. Watch The Throne built upon Kanye’s evolving sonic motif as portions of the album’s material emerged from MBDTF sessions. To bring his ambitious vision to fruition, he enlisted a collective of super producers: Hit-Boy, Mike Dean, Swizz Beatz, Pete Rock, RZA, Pharrell, and Q-Tip all provided additional textures to the production.
As for JAY-Z, the veteran MC had 15 years of music-making under his belt. Coming off the commercial success of The Blueprint 3, which Kanye executive produced, Jay was no longer just the hustler evading cops on the corner but a CEO who brokered deals as a cultural task maker. But the new corporate identity didn't effect his pen: His wit, double entendres, and flow were still second to none.
JAY-Z and Kanye were in the perfect creative space to make a compelling body of work: the two artists were rich, elder statesman who were already accustomed to making expensive-sounding music.
Recording for the album took place in 2010 and over several continents and studios: Avex Recording Studio in Honolulu, Hawaii; Barford Estate in Sydney, Australia; Electric Lady Studios, the Mercer Hotel, MSR Studios, and the Tribeca Grand Hotel in New York City; Le Meurice in Paris; and Real World Studios in Wiltshire, England. The process was wrought with obstacles as JAY-Z and Kanye insisted on recording in person despite scheduling challenges. During an album listening session, JAY-Z noted the creative conflicts he had over the direction of the project with Kanye. JAY-Z still was leery about making a collaborative album after the disastrous results of his albums with R. Kelly but as they got into the project, their chemistry and synergy propelled them over the finish line.
Initially conceived as a five-song EP, the project eventually became a full-length album. In an interview with 99 Jamz days after the album released, JAY-Z explained the conceptual framework behind the title, Watch The Throne.
"It's just protecting the music and the culture. It's people that's in the forefront of the music. ‘Watch the Throne,' like protect it. You just watch how popular music shift, and how hip-hop basically replaced rock & roll as the youth music. The same thing can happen to hip-hop. It can be replaced by other forms of music. So it's making sure that we put the effort into making the best product so we can contend with all this other music, with dance music that's dominating the charts right now and indie music that's dominating the festivals."
After a less-than-enthusiastic response to the Lex Luger produced “H*A*M”— which was released at the top of 2011 — JAY-Z and Kanye went back to the drawing board and released “Otis” as the first official single in July.
The song was given to Funkmaster Flex who would premiere it on July 20, 2011 onHot 97. The moment would go down in hip-hop radio lore. Flex, who was in rare form that night, premiered the track by dropping 63 bombs, started the song over 23 times, and taking almost 30 minutes to play the three-minute song. Flex dropped one-liners like, “This record might keep the summer warm until December'' and “New rappers only breathe at certain times. This is not one.”
If you were outside in the tri-state area — this was a moment.
Sampling the soulful utterances of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” and adding in signature screams from James Brown, “Otis” is a masterpiece in production. Over the track, JAY-Z and Kanye set the tone for the bombastic album: “Photoshoot fresh, looking like wealth. I'm 'bout to call the paparazzi on myself" with 'Ye rapping, “Couture level flow, it's never going on sale. Luxury rap, the Hermes of verses. Sophisticated ignorance, write my curses in cursive.”
Spike Jonze, who directed the video for “Otis,” featured JAY-Z and Kanye deconstructing a Maybach with a chainsaw as they paraded around the scene with a bunch of models. The opulence was mesmerizing. And, anticipation was only rising. After a number of private listening sessions — where there were no leaks! — Watch the Throne was released on August 8th, 2011, with a shiny, gold cover designed by Givenchy creative director Riccardo Tisci.
“No Church in the Wild,” the opening track of the album, was a secularized anthem during a time when rumors of JAY-Z and Kanye’sinvolvement in the Illuminati were swirling around. Over minimalist, haunting production, Frank Ocean asks on the chorus, “What's a mob to a king? What's a king to a God? What's a God to a non-believer, who don't believe in anything? Will he make it out alive? Alright, alright, /No church in the wild.”
It was the third song on the album, however, that would mark another momentous cultural event. Produced by a young Hit-Boy, "Niggas in Paris” was instantly a standout. Noted for eliciting a dozen encores at a live concert in Paris, the track is one of the memorable rap songs of the decade, containing an infectious beat and quotables, like “Ball so hard muthafuckas wanna fine me. But first niggas gotta find me. What's 50 grand to a muthafucka like me? Can you please remind me?” Without question, the track was made to pack the dance floors and to be played at unimaginably high decibels in cars and at concerts. Peaking at no. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, "Niggas in Paris" became the highest-charting single from the album.
Other standouts include “Why I Love You,” where JAY-Z seemingly questions the loyalty of some of his former “cohorts and henchmen” from Roc-A-Fella; the booming, Swizz Beatz produced warning shot “Welcome to the Jungle;” and the aspirational “Murder to Excellence.” All featured JAY-Z and Kanye — aka The Throne — at their best: making hip-hop songs that can ring off in arenas.
Garnering commercial success by selling 436,000 units in its first week of release, the reaction was mostly positive, but there was some dissenters, with criticisms around the album's vanity and maximalist-energy being a turn off for some. (Music critic Greg Kot wrote: "... their approach is not to shine a spotlight on their community. Instead, they urge listeners to 'watch the throne,' and gaze in awe on their good fortune.") But savvy listeners saw underneath the excess. Besides delving into their net worths, the themes of Watch the Throne included dealing with the pitfalls of success, the complexity of fatherhood, the Black struggle, and their reinterpretation of the American dream.
The Watch The Throne Tour which commenced on October 28, 2011, in Atlanta and continued until June 22, 2012, with its final show in Birmingham, grossed $48.3 million, making it the highest-grossing hip-hop tour and the eighth highest-grossing tour of 2011.
But instead of building upon the massive success of the album, JAY-Z and Kanye would grow apart.
The rift between JAY-Z and Kanye allegedly began when JAY-Z and Beyonce didn’t attend his wedding with Kim Kardashian. In a two-hour sit down with Charlemagne tha God, he expressed how JAY-Z’s absence at his wedding affected him. “I was hurt about them not coming to the wedding. I understand they were going through some things, but if it’s family, you’re not going to miss a wedding,” he said.
Also, Kanye criticized JAY-Z for not reaching out after Kim Kardashian was robbed at gunpoint in Paris. During two Saint Pablo tour stops in Seattle and Sacramento, Kanye accused JAY-Z of failing to get in contact with him at one of his lowest moments.
On his 4:44 album, JAY-Z responded to Kanye’s allegations on “Kill JAY-Z.” He said, “But you got hurt because you did cool by 'Ye. You gave him 20 million without blinkin'. He gave you 20 minutes on stage, fuck was he thinkin'? 'Fuckin' wrong with everybody?' is what you sayin'. But if everybody's crazy, you're the one that's insane.”
After years of tension, the two legends reconciled at Sean “Diddy” Combs' birthday party in Los Angeles in 2019. Recently, JAY-Z made a surprise appearance on a track off Kanye’s yet-to-be-released Donda album which was previewed during two listening parties in Atlanta. In his guest verse, JAY-Z alluded to a potential Watch The Throne 2 sequel in the future.
When Watch The Throne dropped, it shook up the world. It was more than just an album. It was a moment, a time capsule of an era when the two biggest, culturally defining personalities on the planet reigned with unquestioned supremacy in pop culture.
Banner Photo Credit: Guillaume Bapiste via AFP/GettyImages
Rashad Grove is a writer from NJ whose work has appeared on BET, Billboard, MTV News, Okayplayer, High Snobiety, Medium, Revolt TV, The Source Magazine, and others. You can follow him at @thegroveness for all of his greatness.