Browse all

How Watch the Throne changed music

Ten years later, we rediscover the impact that the joint album of Jay-Z and Kanye West had

How Watch the Throne changed music Ten years later, we rediscover the impact that the joint album of Jay-Z and Kanye West had

I remember one afternoon in 2011, I was watching television, I was on MTV. At one point they broadcast the video clip of "Otis" by Kanye West and Jay-Z, two rappers that I honestly didn't know (after all, I was 11 years old). I remember these two men deconstructing a luxury car and turning it into a sports car, while the song went with the wonderful sample of Otis Redding's "Try A Little Tenderness" stretched throughout the instrumental of the song, a beat that only a few years later I will discover that it was produced by Kanye. Suddenly, I experience alternating sensations: that song seems alien to me, my eleven-year-old ears were not yet used to something so high. That was the beginning. Ten years later, I find myself writing about that moment, that song, those rappers, and their joint album Watch the Throne. It's August 8, 2011, and music has changed

There is something extraordinary behind Watch the Throne. There are first and foremost two rappers as different as they are similar, with two different careers. On the other hand, Jay-Z had been coming from a complicated decade, with an attached retirement from the stage. On the other hand, Kanye West had released one of his best albums, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, just the year before. Yet the two have been linked for a long time, by agreements with their labels and by a relationship of sincere friendship. Kanye had worked on Jay-Z's records and vice versa. I think of a song above all, "Last Call", the final track of the first official album by Kanye West, The College Dropout, which will also be worth the Grammy for the best rap LP of 2004. Here, "Last Call" is a piece of twelve minutes that looks like a movie, according to everything it tells. In that dozen minutes, there's all the Roc-A-Fella Records, the label (also) founded by Jay-Z in 1995, its present and especially its future, namely Kanye West.

"Me and jay bout to drop a 5 song album called Watch the Throne" tweeted Kanye West on August 28th, 2010. We still don't know it, but in some ways, it's the dawn of a new era for American rap. Luckily, that LP will then contain more than five songs, and t will be released in August 2011. During the first week, it sells 436.000 and it stabilizes on top of the Billboard 200. The week after, it sells 177.000 more. Then 94.000 more. It's a period of transition: the physical versions of the album still count more than the downloads on the streaming services, although Watch the Throne produces 290.000 downloads on iTunes: that's a new record in the USA for the Apple's network, the only to digitally release the album at that time - even then the two rappers were playing with marketing and exclusivity. 

Watch the Throne is the celebration of the careers of Jay-Z and Kanye West, two who have made it. The lyrics of the tracks contain moments of self-exaltation, mention luxury brands, and in their own way rewrite the rules of the rap game. Their is not the first collaborative album in history, but it's certainly the strongest, the most influential. The impact that Watch the Throne had in 2011 is unmatched for any other joint album in history. On a musical level, because it gave way to new couple projects such as What A Time To Be Alive by Future and Drake or Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho by Travis Scott and Quavo, but also on an artistic and cultural level. Globally, Watch the Throne was a taste of the Modern Era of American rap: endless world tours, iconic merchandise, non-musical personalities involved in the production of the album. For example, we often remember how, in a certain sense, Virgil Abloh's career began with Watch the Throne. Kanye assigned him the role of artistic director for the production of the album, something singular for the time, which could only come to Ye's mind. Who would have thought of an art director for a music album? Answer: the same person who would also have thought of a creative director for the same project. Here comes Riccardo Tisci, who in 2011 was the creative director of Givenchy. The work of the Italian designer at Givenchy is sensational: in a maison with such ancient roots, Tisci brings to the catwalk oversized t-shirts, varsity jackets, leather sneakers, baroque and opulent prints, just like the cover of Watch the Throne, which it had to be, baroque and opulent, a hymn to wealth, a reminder of how much Kanye West and Jay-Z counted in the music industry, in perfect Riccardo Tisci style.


The latter, as if that were not enough, also took care of the merchandising of the Watch the Throne tour, a fifty-four date tour between North America and Europe between 2011 and 2012. A garment that is most remembered of that tour is the leather kilt that Tisci invented for Kanye. "It looks like a longer t-shirt," Yeezy says in this video. It made sense: between 2011 and 2013 streetwear was greatly influenced by the creations of the Italian designer, and fast fashion was also inspired by Tisci's work, creating oversized shirts with often terrible graphics. An example of these graphics, although with an obviously superior yield, are the t-shirts that Mr. West and Hova wore on stage, with the classic stars of Givenchy, Tisci's trademark, and the faces of the two rappers with feline features. Influenced by the taste of the Taranto's stylist was Abloh himself in the years to come, as evidenced by his works with Been Trill but also with Pyrex Vision and Off-White.

If I had to find a term to refer to the aesthetics of Watch the Throne, I would use "glitz", an arrogant and present pomp on every aspect of the project. At the beginning I mentioned the "Otis" video clip, which I recommend you review. Kanye and Jay-Z giving new life to a Maybach with no doors and windows, whizzing on it with girls in the back seats, blowing up fireworks at Downey Studios in Downey, California are all synonymous. of pomp. The stage of their concerts, with retractable cubes at the ends of the arena - which projected symbolic images such as the iconic rottweiler from Givenchy's Fall 2011 collection - from which the two rappers emerged at the beginning of the show, with the T-shaped stage, with fireballs fired from the floor and lasers to create the atmosphere throughout the show, everything fits perfectly in the self-celebration of the two rappers, which at times is almost excessive, just as it should have seemed. Even this same vibe exudes from the live performances of the two artists: nothing is more exaggeratedly opulent than singing "Ni * * as in Paris" eleven times in a row in Paris.

Ten years later, as Kanye and Jay-Z anticipated with foresight, rap has changed a lot. First of all, it grew numerically, but it began to have more and more influence on other sectors, such as fashion and even sport (Roc Nation docet) and it has become the musical genre of the moment. In the last decade, the careers of the two Watch the Throne rappers have continued on separate paths, also due to some disagreements that began with the absence of Hova and Beyoncé from the marriage of Kanye and Kim Kardashian, continued with the disappearance of Kanye from TIDAL (streaming platform founded by the colleague) and the disappearance and reappearance of Watch the Throne and Jay-Z discs from Spotify, and lasted until 2019, when the two were spotted together on the birthday of Sean "Diddy" Combs. In fact, as early as 2018 there seemed to be peace between Ye and Hova, as this tweet from Kanye, which heralded Watch the Throne 2, seemed to demonstrate.

Watch the Throne 2 is still a mirage so far, yet something seems to finally be moving. In fact, we know that on July 22nd Ye presented his new album, DONDA, at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, and that Jay-Z was present in the last song played during the listening party. Of course, this doesn't mean we'll have WTT 2 anytime soon, but maybe that's even better. Watch the Throne it is good that it remains unique; it's like those movies that are so beautiful and complete that it just doesn't need a sequel. Also, I can't imagine Watch the Throne out of its historical, social and cultural context. If there is a record that is obviously the son of 2011, that is the joint album by Kanye West and Jay-Z, so it would be out of place to find its second chapter ten years later. On top of that, right now Kanye and Hova are probably at a higher level in their careers, in their lives: I think they no longer need to flaunt their wealth and well-being. It is for this reason that today we remember Watch the Throne as a work of art from its historical moment. A work of art that, like good wine, has aged very well, but which above all helps us to remember what 2011 was like on every level.