In Sunday’s fading minutes, hip-hop America huddled around the digital watercooler for the exclusive iTunes release of “Watch the Throne,” a galactically hyped collaboration that Jay-Z and Kanye West somehow kept from leaking to the masses.
The clock struck midnight like a starter pistol. As fans raced toward an opinion, Twitter didn’t sleep. “Watch the Throne” was a bitter disappointment! An instant classic! A bitter disappointment, but only if you were expecting an instant classic — otherwise, pretty good!
But flowing beneath that miasma of reflexive haterade and compulsory adulation was a triumphal subtext. Two superstar rappers had everyone in a splintered popscape talking about the same thing. At once. We were experiencing The Great Galvanizing Pop Music Moment of 2011. Hip-hop hooray?
Now, just a few smoke-clearing hours later, “Watch the Throne” feels like a much more meaningful triumph. It’s a compelling, complex, conflicted album so densely layered with commentary on race and class that the idea of trying to parse it in 140 characters at 3 o’clock in the morning seems ridiculous.
It’s also a relief. Those expecting a disastrous ego clash will have to wait for Congress to reconvene — or until Jay-Z and West hit the road together this fall. Here, the duo volley between the contemplative and the petulant, dreaming contorted American dreams in which your worth is defined by your Rolex, your tenacity, your Warhol collection, your desire, the cars in your garage and the chips on your shoulder. Over the course of 16 tracks, rebellion is consistently tempered with gluttony — the two dissonant spirits that make this country great.
Well, at least they make this album great, especially on “Murder to Excellence,” a song split into two dizzying halves. “It’s time for us to stop and redefine black power,” West declares in the first half. He compares urban murder rates to Iraq war casualties, even genocide, over the warble of a guitar that sounds as if it’s been beaten out of tune.
In part two, Jay finds solace in wealth and prestige. “It’s a celebration of black excellence,” he raps. “Opulence, decadence, tuxes next to the president.”
Even the sparkling beat of “Illest [Expletive] Alive” feels opulent as Jay brags about the Basquiats hanging in his bathroom: “Usually you have this much taste, you European / That’s the end of that way of thinking.”
He brings a similar notion to the halls of the Museum of Modern Art with “That’s My [Expletive],” challenging art-world beauty standards: “If Picasso was alive he would have made her. . . . Mona Lisa can’t fade her / I mean, Marilyn Monroe, she is quite nice / But why all the pretty icons always all white? / Put some colored girls in the MoMa.”
West, meantime, is at his most engrossing with “New Day,” as he and Jay deliver preemptive apologies to the unborn glimmers in their eyes. “I’ll never let my son have an ego,” West rhymes. “He’ll be nice to everyone wherever we go / I mean, I might even make him be Republican / So everybody know he love white people.”
His defiance quickly withers into self-pity: “I just want him to have a easy life / Not like Yeezy life / Just want him to be someone people like.”
As West slumps into a forlorn headspace that Jay is typically allergic to, a twinkling keyboard ushers in a tender second verse. “Sorry, junior / I already ruined ya’,” Jay raps. “You ain’t even alive / paparazzi pursuing ya.’ ”
The other tracks here — West co-produced a dozen of them — wouldn’t sound out of place on West’s masterly 2010 album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” Nothing jumps out as a single, but each track provides the reliable sonic bedrock required for a balancing act of this nature.
But where the sound is coherent, the worldviews diverge. On “Murder to Excellence,” Jay aims to inspire: “Power to the people / When you see me, see you.”
Impossible. Jay’s most diamond-encrusted verses might give us the guts to fantasize beyond our means, but most of us will never touch that kind of wealth. Meanwhile, West continues to invest in the power of ego — something a recession can never take away. Because of that, “Watch the Throne” is his album.
Only it’s really our album. It might be a summer blockbuster designed to make us bow before two rap demigods, but after just a few spins, “Watch the Throne” asks us to question our own desires — spiritual and material.
Instead of watching the throne, we end up gazing deep into our own navels.
“Murder to Excellence,” “New Day,” “That’s My [Expletive]”
Jay-Z and Kanye West are scheduled to perform at Baltimore’s 1st Mariner Arena on Nov. 1 and the District’s Verizon Center on Nov. 3.