Album: Jay-Z and Kanye West, "Watch the Throne" (Roc-A-Fella)
In olden times, supergroups tended to be a guy (or two if you were lucky) you had kind of heard of, plus some other guys who were in bands you sort of remembered, plus maybe the drummer for Grand Funk Railroad for good measure. This is possibly the reason the entire notion of "supergroup" is not held in great esteem: nobody really wants to see the drummer for Grand Funk Railroad do anything except be the drummer for Grand Funk Railroad.
Kanye West and Jay-Z getting together, on the other hand, is modern, hiphopified culture's equivalent of John Lennon and Mick Jagger whacking out an album in 1970. It's not something you get to see too often, the two biggest stars in any particular galaxy aligning as a unit, and there is a somewhat prosaic reason you don't see it happening more: like LeBron James taking his talents to South Beach to ball with Dwyane Wade, getting megastars like Yeezy and Hova together under the same rubric produces a conundrum as large as its tantalizing promise. Who's going to shoot the damn ball?
On "Watch the Throne," it's mostly Jay-Z's team, but the most fascinating part of the album, in fact, might be watching the bobbleheaded ego of Kanye West self-deflate just enough to allow the two of them to fit in the same room together at the same time. He doesn't defer, exactly: "What's a king without a god?" he asks, possibly rhetorically, on the tub-thumping opener, "No Church in the Wild," before Shawn Carter breaks in and steals the song with some portentously cryptic rhymes about tears on the mausoleum floor and lies on the lips of priests. Kanye is still stuck somewhat in "808s and Heartbreak" mode, though the auto-tuning is greatly toned down here; there's something genuinely charming and genuine about his unaltered singing voice; you want to tape it up on your refrigerator and admire it on your way to the yogurt. The track is undeniably a highlight -- "Lift Off," which follows, sounds insincere and wafer-thin in direct contrast, unredeemed by a guest vocal from the Missus Jay-Z.
If you were expecting tales of excess and first world superstar problems, hold on, they're coming. "I'm suffering from realness!" Kanye exclaims on the hyphy "Niggas in Paris," before Jay-Z chimes in about all the "bitches I own," and the world's media mavens scramble to jot down a bullet-pointed inventory, which is, confoundingly, exactly the effect our principals are after (although it is amusing to watch the custodians of the cultural old guard grapple fastidiously and often unexpectedly amusingly with this new paradigm: "Both rappers are in excellent form, with Jay-Z repeating 'That shit cray' -- we are left to fill in the '-zy,' the UK's Guardian helpfully informed its readers last week.)
Most songs on "Watch the Throne" at least touch briefly -- if not exclusively -- on the status and wealth and sheer accumulation of brands associated with these two men, but it seems difficult to credit that anyone listening to this record would still be surprised or impressed with such revelations at this point. Hard to imagine, but listening to two extremely rich men boast in verse about the extent of their vast respective treasure hoards is not quite as compelling as our heroes probably thought it would be. There are further chapters of this fascinating, flawed document left to explore, however.
Other cuts exploit soul heroes (Curtis Mayfield, Otis Redding) and attempt to redefine them in the context of "Throne's" all-points "disregard women, acquire currency" bulletin. "I invented swag," Hova confusingly boasts over Redding's swooning "Try a Little Tenderness" hooks -- they let the song run mostly unmolested for a good 30 seconds before sweating money and bullets over a looped sample of Otis in full growl. "Photo shoot fresh, looking like wealth." Who can argue? The man makes his own cognac.
The album-closing "The Joy," featuring a delicious, slow-roasted slice of Mayfield's "The Making of You," is sweeter fruit entirely. Some of that is a square peg forced into a round hole: "the sheer expression of happiness," Curtis croons, while Jay-Z grunts, and Kanye waxes poetic: "I still hear the ghosts of the kids I never had." It's a great line, and it doesn't have to mean anything, but the next verse opens another crack into the man. "Your life's cursed? Well mine's an obscenity." Once again Kanye veers dangerously close to self-awareness; if he ever reaches it, will he burst into flames like Icarus? It's almost like a secret he keeps from himself.
The real secrets stuck deep in the grooves, of course, are how Kanye and Jay-Z interact not just with each other but with the wider world -- they treat each other with respect, yes, but also with a clear sense of trepidation. Like wary lions, each one seems unwilling to fall asleep while the other one is in the room. "Let me show you what I see when my eyes closed," Kanye says on "Illest Motherfucker Alive," which throbs with crunky menace; "This is real life," Jay-Z responds a full verse later. "This is what the ending of Scarface should feel like." If you don't think they're talking to each other, you're not paying attention.