For the lazy critic, Watch the Throne came out at just the right time. Here were two extravagantly rich men rapping about unheard-of fashion brands, luxury watches and premium sports cars while looters ransacked London, American exceptionalism got piqued by a credit rating downgrade and markets threatened to destroy the world. The narrative was set. Income Gap rap was coined. The album was dismissed as irrelevant, out-of-touch.
Given its creators, accusing Watch the Throne of gold-gilded obliviousness is awfully tempting. ‘Fur pillows are actually hard to sleep on’ is a tweet that Marie Antoinette was never lucky enough to make, and Jay, while less Twitter famous, informs us that he’s ‘planking on a million’ a short while into the album. It’s fair to say that the pair aren’t apologetic about their wealth in the age of austerity.
Last time the two traded bars was on Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Watch the Throne was born out of that album’s sessions and has something of the feel of a sequel, stylistically and in terms of narrative. Kanye’s solo opus moved from extroverted swagger to solipsistic retreat via a messy descent, but ended with Gil Scott Heron asking, ‘Who will survive in America?’
Far from gaudy posturing, WTT attempts to answer that question. If MBDTF was a study of a wealthy black American, WTT is a examination of wealth and black America. ‘This is a celebration of black excellence,’ Jay-Z toasts in the interlude of ‘Murder to Excellence’ - a track that swings from police brutality dirge to manifesto-cum-celebration of a future black elite, extremes that WTT rocks between song-to-song, line-to-line. The album charts the twinned pride and despair of an America with a black president and a burgeoning black bourgeois - just look to Chicago, Kanye’s hometown - but nonetheless remains a nation that binds blackness with underprivilege in a way not dissimilar to the era of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and black radicalism that the album quotes generously from. Rapping about riches and possessing self-awareness are not mutually exclusive qualities, and the pair are more than aware of the problematic relationship between the wealth they’ve attained and their race.
Jefferson’s argument is a bit of a straw man that takes the Garvas video as a invitation to bash the album and its makers for not being truly revolutionary enough, when I’ve always seen it as an album that just wants to provoke and ask questions. I watched Black Power Mixtape only last month and I can’t say that I ever considered the album in the same league or having the same intentions as Angela Davis or Huey Newton. The pair are clearly not going to be on the barricades when the revolution comes, but neither do I think they’re mindless bootstrappers who equate wealth with hard work. There’s a strong line of woe and fatalism that runs through the album and a lot of the interviews that Jay-Z in particular gives. Beyond the flashiness, the central lyrical theme on the album is ‘why hasn’t capitalism - America - been better for more people like me?’ That thought doesn’t stop the reverly or gaudiness on the album for too long, maybe it shouldn’t, but it’s there, which is something.
Anyway, it’s good that - nearly a year on - the album’s still inspiring writing that’s moved well beyond the INCOME GAP RAP cry that found its way into a lot of the initial criticism.