After nearly a decade in the making, Jay-Z and Kanye West released their co-headlining album, Watch The Throne, on August 8, 2011. In the years following its release, it’s gone on to become the most famous collaboration album in hip-hop history. It helped set the bar for the surprise releases that would go on to dominate the streaming world, and ushered Jay-Z’s career into a new decade.
In the ten years leading up to Watch The Throne, the two rap gods had helped pushed each other creatively, bringing out the best in each other’s work. West lent his production prowess to Jay-Z’s The Blueprint while Hova gave some of his best verses to Kanye’s early albums, an essential co-sign of Kanye’s legitimacy as a rapper.
Watch The Throne was proof that Kanye could still pack surprises and shift the cultural landscape less than a year after he dropped My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a magnum opus that would have drained almost anyone else of their powers for some time.
A spiritual sequel
It’s hard to separate Watch The Throne from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, released just nine months prior. Even in the endless social-media news cycle, this felt like a ridiculously fast turnaround. In many ways, however, Watch The Throne is like a spiritual sequel, or at least a companion piece to its predecessor. Jay-Z appeared on a “Power” remix and then, about a month before … Dark Twisted Fantasy dropped, he appeared on Kanye’s single “Monster,” which featured Rick Ross and a career-making appearance from Nicki Minaj.
But in January 2011, Jay and Kanye dropped “HAM,” a now-legendary operatic-trap hybrid courtesy of Lex Luger, who had previously helped Kanye on … Dark Twisted Fantasy’s “See Me Now.” It was a stamp of approval for the new trap sound that would go on to dominate rap for the next decade, but, at the time, it seemed the duo were cooking up an EP’s worth of material at most.
More ambitious than they thought
Jay and Kanye were, however, more ambitious than they thought. When Watch The Throne finally arrived, “HAM” appeared as a bonus track. Even more so than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Watch The Throne would blend traditional and experimental production in unexpected ways, while lyrically it juxtaposed social criticism with the most opulent imagery imaginable.
From guest appearances to producers, the album’s collaborators are of the highest order. Frank Ocean appears a few times, ahead of dropping channel ORANGE that summer and establishing himself as one of the greatest musicians of the era. Naturally, Beyoncé makes an appearance. We get some bank-breaking James Brown and Nina Simone samples courtesy of The Neptunes on “Gotta Have It” and Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA on “New Day,” right next to Kanye’s own “Otis” beat.
Sampling Nina would become a mainstay of Kanye West albums. But for all those voices on the album, the most famous sample may actually be of comedian Will Ferrell, via dialogue lifted from Blades Of Glory and placed on “N__gas In Paris” – a testament to how weird and great hip-hop had become.
Hip-hop’s new ruling class
Four years after Kanye had commissioned Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami to create the cover of Graduation and American artist George Condo for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the worlds of art and hip-hop had become increasingly intertwined.
Working with Riccardo Tisci, Givenchy’s creative director at the time, Ye and Hova created not only the album’s artwork, but custom shirts for the two MCs to wear on stage, setting the concert-merch-as-luxury-fashion template that all others have followed. The design motifs of animals, religion, and power, all gilded in gold, represented Kanye’s and Jay-Z’s larger-than-life ambitions and their status as rap royalty.
Without Watch The Throne, we wouldn’t have Drake and Future’s What A Time to be Alive, nor Without Warning by 21 Savage, Offset and producer Metro Boomin, or Gunna and Wheezy’s Drip Or Drown EP. Watch The Throne may not have been the first collaborative album in hip-hop, but it redefined what a joint album could be and created a grand spectacle in an industry that needed it most.