Rap royal Jay-Z has matched his limber-lipped rhyming skills with myriad hot duet partners, including hip-rock scruffs Linkin Park, wife Beyonce and headcase Lothario R. Kelly. But cool-as-ice Shawn Carter has never dealt with such a flamethrowin' dance partner as Kanye West, with whom he's just released Watch the Throne, the veritable Lethal Weapon of rap albums.
Upon first listen, it's easy to think the 34-year-old West is a far bigger presence on this blockbuster than his 41-year-old mentor. But the truth is that Taylor Swift's big-mouthed bully is merely the faster, spazzier MC in this dynamic duo, like a slobbery puppy doing backflips for his master's approval. Jay-Z is all over this joint, which might be the best sounding album of both careers. But in this buddy project, he's definitely the wise elder to West's crazy cop on the edge.
Chicago's Kanye scored his first big break in the early 2000s as a relative unknown producing for Brooklyn's Jay-Z. So it makes sweet sense that 'Ye dutifully oversees the production here. He also brings in such beatmakers as the Neptunes, Swizz Beatz and A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip to help create complex canvases for Jay-Z to spit his tales of conquer and corruption — and for Kanye to come behind and burn the whole place to the ground.
This could have been a disaster, but it's smart, refreshing and ferocious. Opening track No Church in the Wild blends the ominous vibe of both West's Jesus Walks and Jay's 99 Problems to present a bleak, drug-laced land where even God has turned his back. "Lies on the lips of a priest," Jay-Z warns over reinforced samples of James Brown, Spooky Tooth and Phil Manzanera. "We formed a new religion / No sins as long as there's permission," counters nihilistic Kanye.
Even though they're both multimillion-dollar franchises, these guys are too clever to merely make something safe. Yes, there are typical moments of swagger for swagger's sake, including the speed-bag punch of Otis, which floats on Redding's Try a Little Tenderness. ("I invented swag / Poppin' bottles, puttin' supermodels in the cab," brags Jay. "Couture-level flow / It's never going on sale," boasts West.) And a few patches of harsh misogyny leave a bitter taste.
But there are also stretches of surprise, most of which work. The Springsteen-esque bootstrap commentary of Made in America. Bemoaning black-on-black crime on Murder to Excellence. With a trippy groove provided by the RZA, New Day is a daydream in which both men imagine being fathers. Kanye raps: "I might even make 'em be Republican / So everybody know he love white people / And I'll never let 'em leave his college girlfriend / And get caught up with the groupies in the whirlwind." Jay-Z's part is even more heartbreaking: "Sorry junior, I already ruined ya / Cause you ain't even alive, paparazzi pursuin' ya / Sins of a father make your life 10 times harder."
And so it goes, each rapper pushing each other harder, setting the bar higher, whether it's chasing women, wealth or the American Dream. At record's end, on the ferocious Why I Love You, a track aimed at detractors performed almost exclusively by Jay-Z, Kanye whips his partner into a speed-rapping frenzy. It's an unhinged no-holds moment, two showmen enjoying the view at the top of their game. The Throne has been defended. It's good to be the kings.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. You can follow him on Twitter (@seandalypoplife).