“We can talk, but money talks, so talk mo’ bucks,” Jay-Z spits on 2001’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”, indicating just how mammoth his empire would become. Not only was The Blueprint single his first Top 10 hit (signaling his growing rap domination), but it also marked Kanye West’s mainstream introduction. Then solely an in-house producer for Roc-A-Fella Records, he made his place known with the jovial “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” production and later his rollercoaster ride as a solo rap superstar.
In the decade following “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”, both artists’ pockets got even heavier as they skyrocketed as the Kings of Rap. Being the boastful men they are, their untouchable stature was celebrated on Watch The Throne. The joint project, which turns 10 this month, was a natural progression of the buddies’ careers. West was still on a high from 2010’s magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a prog-rap feast that was released eight months prior. As for Jay-Z, he dropped his 11th album The Blueprint 3 in 2009. Albeit insipid compared to the triptych’s previous albums, it gifted him his first No. 1 hit with the ubiquitous, Grammy-winning “Empire State Of Mind”.
So they kept the momentum going, combining years of friendship, equal love for the finer things in life, and sh*t-talking together on a handful of collaborations on Watch The Throne. The packaging alone was dripping in luxe: the pair called on Riccardo Tisci, Givenchy’s creative director at the time, to design the gold-plated artwork as well as their tour outfits that ignited the idea of concert merch being presented as high-fashion.
Even the album’s creation was an event. They recorded in extravagant hotels and villas all around the world, from New York City, Paris, Sydney (where Russell Crowe, whom West shouts out on “Illest Motherf*cker Alive” made a cameo), England, Los Angeles, and Hawaii (the same place West hunkered down for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). It was a lifestyle that only the rich and famous could acquire, which they made clear throughout the album.
“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,” Jay-Z explained during the album’s promo run. “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.”
That idea of reclaiming rap as a youth genre was best seen on “H•A•M,” the album’s first single and the most arrogant track on Watch The Throne. The pair’s braggadocio lyrics (see Jay-Z’s Birdman subliminal “I’m like, ‘Really, half a billi,’ n****, really?’ You got baby money / Keep it real with n****s, n****s ain’t got my lady money) was anchored by Lex Luger’s intense, spooky, and operatic production — his signature sound that ruled hip-hop for a wink of time. Yet “H•A•M” wasn’t the best reflection of the album, and the rappers seemingly agreed, ultimately placing it as a bonus track on the deluxe edition.
Watch The Throne’s true landmark was “Otis.” Diehard fans remember exactly where they were when it premiered on Hot 97, with Funkmaster Flex dropping infinite bombs on the single. It’s one of West and Jigga’s most jubilant moments that highlight their innate chemistry, as they trade grandiose bars atop a fervently chopped sample of Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness” that could only be executed by West himself. The Spike Jonze-directed video doubled-down on the rappers’ blatant flexes (“Luxury rap, the Hermès of verses / Sophisticated ignorance, write my curses in cursive”) by deconstructing a Maybach 57 like kids playing with a toy car just for the hell of it.
The decadence continued on The Neptunes co-produced “Gotta Have It” that gave us timely references like “planking on a million” and “Maybachs on ‘Bachs on ‘Bachs on ‘Bachs on ‘Bachs”, as well as the “No Church In The Wild” opener. Featuring Frank Ocean (who just became a critical darling with his debut mixtape nostalgia,ULTRA), it is an ominous, cinematic masterpiece. The artists discuss Greek philosophy, the constructs of religion and monogamy (“Jesus was a carpenter, Yeezy laid beats / Hova flow the Holy Ghost”), and misogynistic power (“You will not control the threesome”)
Then there’s “N****s In Paris.” The Grammy-winning track put producer Hit-Boy on the map, thanks to its bonkers blend of thumping basslines, ear-piercing synths, and that incredibly random Blades Of Glory dialogue that best summates the song: “No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative!” It’s weird, anthemtic nature is best displayed in a live setting, with West and Jay-Z showing just how wonderfully obnoxious it is by performing it a record of 11 times during their Paris tour stop.
But the luxury rap and trendy sounds (the dubstep-driven “Who Gon Stop Me” and the bombastic electronics of “Why I Love You”) were balanced with messages that gave an insight into what it means to be successful and Black in America.
The pair call upon RZA, who funnels Nina Simone’s ”Feeling Good” through Auto-tune as they somberly ruminate over the lessons they want to teach their future sons. It was an interesting foreshadow, as both rappers first had daughters before adding their male heirs to their throne. While West mostly harbored the album’s viral moments, “Welcome To The Jungle” belongs to Jay-Z. Here, he reveals pain, grief, and depression he’s faced while describing himself as a “tortured soul,” flipping the Guns N’ Roses debaucherous reference to represent the rugged streets. Yes, the rappers were rich beyond measure, but they also grappled with the average Black American struggle that contrasted with Black excellence (“Murder To Excellence”) and if the American Dream is even achievable (“Made In America”).
Jay-Z and West already launched their careers into music’s stratosphere by the time of Watch The Throne’s release, but they solidified themselves as rap visionaries shrouded by wealth in an untouchable tax bracket. Jay-Z continued to flaunt his riches, releasing the designer Magna Carta Holy Grail in 2013 before breaking his facade with 2017’s 4:44 and later becoming rap’s first billionaire in 2019. West had a vastly different trajectory: in the midst of releasing five more albums (including this year’s DONDA), he became even more known for controversy, from supporting President Trump, having very public mental breakdowns that targeted then-wife Kim Kardashian, Kris Jenner and his daughter North, harmfully declaring “Slavery is dead” and later divorcing the Kardashian.
There have been many cries for a Watch The Throne sequel, and the teasers and false starts didn’t help the cause. It was unclear if the reunion was ever going to happen, especially as Jay-Z continued to distance himself from his once-close ally. Interim joint projects, from Drake and Future’s What A Time To Be Alive to 21 Savage and Offset’s Without Warning and even West’s Kids See Ghosts with Kid Cudi, helped satiate millennial rap fans.
The pair seem to be on better terms, though, with the former recently making an unexpected appearance on West’s DONDA. But the opulent spectacle that made Watch The Throne so fun cannot be replicated. “How many people you know can take it this far?” Beyoncé mused on “Lift Off.” Jay-Z and Kanye West exceeded far beyond their pinnacles at the time, and it’s hard to guesstimate how much further they could possibly go. But we’re fine not knowing the answer for now.