Label: Roc-A-Fella, Roc Nation, Def Jam
Producers: 88-Keys, Kanye West, Mike Dean, Jeff Bhasker, Q-Tip, Don Jazzy, Hit-Boy, Anthony Killhoffer, The Neptunes, RZA, Ken Lewis, Swizz Beatz, Shama "Sak Pase" Joseph, S1 Mason
Features: Frank Ocean, Beyoncé, Otis Redding, Mr Hudson
Sales: 1.4 million copies
Hip-hop loves a good argument. (In case you hadn't noticed.) In recent years, as Kanye West’s catalog has filled out to become one of the best runs rap has ever seen, there's been a good new one boiling: Jay-Z vs. Kanye. Friends, colleagues, "brothers," as Kanye put it on record. Could Kanye actually usurp Jay's status as Greatest In the World? Has he already? The barbershops buzzed.
So when they joined forces for the Watch the Throne album in 2011, the debate was thrown into delicious relief: Who would own the record? Nothing like a side-by-side comparison to make a qualitative distinction.
Make no mistake, on an artistic level, Watch The Throne is a Kanye album: From the obnoxious Riccardo Tisci-designed gold-plated cover, right down to the auto-tuning of Nina Simone’s vocals on “New Day,” it’s all obviously guided by the hand of Yeezus. That’s because Kanye is a better all-around artist than Jay. (Let's face it, he's a better all-around artist than pretty much anyone.) But as far the debate goes: Who's watching who's throne, the hip-hop throne, Jay holds the trump card because he’s a better all around rapper than Kanye. (Let's face it, he's a better all-around rapper than nearly anyone.) This is why WTThas such a delicate balance: It’s the house that Kanye built, but it’s Jay who actually lives in it.
If you think that’s up for debate, simply count out the number of verses Jay and Kanye each have. Kanye barely even spits 12 bars on “Who Gone Stop Me” before Jay blacks out for nearly 30. While Jay is bodying tracks like “Welcome To The Jungle” and “Love You So” (two of Jay’s best line-for-line outings this decade) Kanye is regulated to the sidelines, contributing only quick ad-libs in support.
That’s not to say Kanye doesn’t hold his own. He’s as memorably entertaining as ever—whether rapping to the son he's never had (he's got a new daughter now, of course, North) or popping an Advil after staying up all night. Those rhymes are so Kanye, but they don’t actually get at the central idea that holds the album together: The struggles of being black, rich and famous in a country where the first part of that equation means you’re a suspect, forever, in the eyes of many. In other words, the album is about, as Jay put it, "Black excellence, opulence, decadence," as a political statement. It's about carving out a place for themselves in America's plutocracy, on their own terms.
This is a complicated idea that Jay is simply better able to articulate, it's an idea he’s been exploring since he successfully convinced us that we should see his success as a moral victory for the culture as a whole. Kanye’s verse on “Niggas In Paris” may be hilariously quotable. (We'll never order fish fillete the same way again.) But it’s Jay’s verse that carries more meaning, “Ball so hard, I’m shocked too/I’m supposed to be locked up too/You escaped what I’ve escaped, you’d be in Paris getting fucked up too.”
Beyond the competition with Kanye, consider how remarkable this achievement really in the larger context of rap. Plenty of rappers have found ways to put on the convincing image of a thug to make their music visceral, but this late in his career, Jay found a way to talk about the black experience in a way no rapper had ever done before—and made it catchy and compelling and fun. Some of this had to with Kanye keeping him on his heels, that’s why his raps are as razor sharp here as they have been on any record in the last 10 years. But for the most part it’s just Jay making sure you never have a reason to throw rocks at the throne. — Insanul Ahmed