This article is a refix of the 2017 article ‘The Significance of Watch the Throne‘, edited and upgraded to reflect contexts of the tenth anniversary.
In 2011, Jay Z and Kanye West shook the rap world with the release of their collaborative album Watch the Throne. It was a historical moment in hip hop; two rap giants coming together for a full-length project after collaborating with each other for a solid decade. With its first single dropped in January 2011, Watch the Throne swiftly became the most anticipated album of the year – and the decade. It miraculously avoided the infamous internet leak, sold 436,000 copies first week, and was positively received by fans and critics. Ten years on, Watch the Throne remains a seminal album, the effects of which are still felt to this day.
In theory, hip hop’s never seen a collaborative album on such a magnitude. We’ve had Mos Def and Talib Kweli, Birdman and Lil Wayne, Nas and Damian Marley, and more recently Drake and Future. So it’s not like this was a brand new idea in the genre. But none of them compare to two figures like Jay Z and Kanye West teaming up. This fact alone is why it shook the world, before the project even came out. And the fact that they were considering a Watch the Throne II? It was already audacious to begin with.
Question is, why create the album in the first place? They’re both individually successful as it is, but they did it anyway. Kanye was fresh off the release of the lauded My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, famously stating he made a mistake releasing Watch the Throne closely after Dark Twisted Fantasy that inevitably led to a double Grammy snub for Album of the Year.
For Jay it’s business. There’s an insane amount of profit and publicity to gain from a collab album. He’s done it plenty times before with artists you’d never have imagined he’d do one with (R. Kelly, twice, Linkin Park), just to secure the bag. For Kanye it’s a chance to work with his big brother. He’d take any creative chance he gets. In fact, the project was originally supposed to be a six-or-seven collaborative EP. Guess that creativity got the best of them both.
Fact is, there was definitely some creative differences between the two artists when making the album. One of those differences came to light earlier this year; Kanye wanted to include the n-word in every song title of the album. Jay thought that was absurd, but he gave one exception (“N****s in Paris”) which ended up being the biggest hit off the project – which Jay wanted to call “Ball So Hard”. So it’s clear their visions never always aligned in the creation of this album.
Despite it not being the first of its kind, Watch the Throne still set a trend for rappers collaborating on projects, or at least theorising a collaboration. Since The Throne, collaborative albums have emerged from a number of duos, but isn’t limited to: Drake & Future, Gunna & Lil Baby, Jadakiss & Fabolous, Travis Scott & Quavo, Kanye West & Kid Cudi, and 2 Chainz & Lil Wayne.
So Watch the Throne effectively became the blueprint for collaborative rap albums. It proved that a collab project can be successful as long as there’s chemistry and two high-profiled artists involved.
It popularised multiple back-to-back verses on a song, a structure set by the iconic “Otis”, and on further tracks like “Gotta Have It”. This set the benchmark for how to unlock chemistry between two performers; rather than passing the baton, make it a game of table tennis. Which is why there is no rigid form to Watch the Throne – the song components all feel in shape.
You can also not forget the way the album’s biggest hit took the world by storm. “N****s in Paris” dominated internet culture for the early years of the decade, spawning numerous memes for its iconic lines: “Ball so hard”, “That shit cray”, “What she order? Fish fillet”, and for the Blades of Glory sample fitted across the song. Nowadays, hip hop lacks quotables that transcend into pop culture: “N****s in Paris” had four of them. Ten years later and the tune’s gained new life through TikTok memes related to the song’s namesake.
Watch the Throne is far from perfect, but it has timeless offerings scattered across the entirety of the tracklist. “Otis” is a sampling masterpiece, which possesses the strongest display of chemistry between Ye and Hov as they rap verse after verse after each other, “N****s in Paris” never gets old and there’s also the playful “Gotta Have It” and “That’s My Bitch”. Plus, it’s the most experimental you’ll ever see Jay, whether it’s rapping over dubstep on “Who Gon Stop Me” or the heavy orchestral trap-themed “H•A•M”. That’s achieved with the help of Kanye, who’s always been a master at blending genres such as electronica and soul into hip hop.
Speaking of “H•A•M”, the lead single for the album set the intents for the album, while simultaneously introducing a new genre. For two songs, Watch the Throne introduced opera trap and never touched the style again. “H•A•M” and “Illest Motherf**ker Alive” brought together opera with hardcore trap production, creating a heavenly subgenre of music perfect for rocking stadiums till eardrums burst. These moments of genius exist purely in the vacuum of the album.
Let’s recap the tracklist. First track “No Church in the Wild” is a masterful opener, introducing the star that is Frank Ocean to the world before the release of a debut album. “Lift Off” is the album’s weakest moment, particularly through its concept, though it still boasts an enjoyable hook and wit from Kanye. “Gotta Have It” epitomises the chemistry between Jay-Z and Kanye West over the killer Bollywood sample, courtesy of The Neptunes. Deeper cuts like “That’s My Bitch” deliver addictive production, vital contributions from La Roux and Charlie Wilson, and humorous verses from the leading stars.
The Swizz Beatz-produced “Welcome to the Jungle” secured the twentieth spot on Rolling Stone’s 50 Best Singles of 2011 list. While there are better songs on the album, it is another moment of memorable production and verses. Jay-Z steals the show for once on the experimental “Who Gon Stop Me”, a track that rises from the ashes of the dark days of dubstep. “Made in America” is the most sombre moment of the album, wrapping up the album’s focus of African-American success. “Why I Love You” feels like a leftover from Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3, but makes its mark as an album closer in the second half.
But some of the album’s greatest moments arrive on the deluxe edition. Opera trap bangers aside, “Primetime” and “The Joy” are for the hip hop heads that felt disappointed by the standard edition’s focus on modern fusions.
Lyrically, the thought of rapping alongside Jay-Z forced Kanye to improve his pen, delivering some of his best raps to date – and even famously outperforming Jay-Z on the majority of the album. Watch the Throne is perhaps Kanye’s most lyrical display of career, putting heart and soul into the witty verses of “Otis”, “Gotta Have It” and more. Kanye simultaneously allows Jay-Z to open up to different production, bringing him out his comfort zone to take more risks. To Jay’s credit, even though he was not at peak rapping during the 2009-13 era, he effortlessly provides great one-liners across the record (“Build your fences, we’re digging tunnels / Can’t you see we be gettin’ money up under you?”). Wherever the duo stepped, they stepped together.
What’s also great about WTT is the balance between substance and entertainment. Outside of the fun tracks there’s “Murder to Excellence”, an anthemic two-part ode to black pride. Its message hits hard and is a standout track on the album in terms of content. “New Day” is the most personal song by The Throne on which Jay and Kanye rap as if they are talking to their future sons. Fast forward to present day and Jay-Z has three children while Kanye has four. These tracks can easily be overshadowed by the more easy-going songs, but upon revisiting you find a new appreciation for tracks like “New Day”.
A forgotten aspect of the album is the tour, taking place from October 2011 – June 2012 with North American + European legs. The duo performed a total of 57 dates, including two back to back dates at the Madison Square Garden and five dates at the London O2. In total, the tour grossed $75 million, adjusted with inflation to $85 million. This was the tour of the century.
As usual, the staging was brilliant, allowing the songs designed for concerts to truly resonate in their peak states. On the final Paris date, Kanye and Jay famously performed “N****s in Paris” twelve times in a row, a moment remembered to this day.
There has never been a tour on this magnitude in hip hop ever since, and will likely never see two giant forces link up in such a capacity ever again.
The Finer Details
New appreciation for Watch the Throne emerges when unlocking the album’s attention to detail. Two years ago, I realised that Kid Cudi sung the outro to “Illest Motherfucker Alive”, without being credited. I then went on to find out that he provides background vocals on three other songs, the recent of which I noticed was his humming during one of Jay’s verses on “Murder to Excellence”. It’s astounding that you can catch details in songs that you never noticed before this many years later. That is the true definition of an album being “timeless”.
Transitions within Watch the Throne are also understated. The sharp exchange between “Otis” and “Gotta Have It” never gets old, nor does the switch from “That’s My Bitch” to “Welcome to the Jungle” or turn into the second half of “Murder to Excellence”. You cannot also forget the somewhat annoying but now iconic interlude that recurs throughout the album. It’s an interlude which purpose was never explained, but the mystique of it is much better than the backstory. These are elements that are missing from both artists’ music in the new decade.
The final question that remains is, can there be a collaboration on such a magnitude that manages to surpass The Throne? Within the ten years, multiple attempts have been made, and nothing has come close. In July 2021, the duo shocked the world once again with a surprise musical reconciliation during Kanye’s DONDA listening party, with Jay-Z laying a verse on a Kanye West song for the first time in eight years – raising ears with his line “This just might be the return of the Throne.”
Despite its grandeur, it remains underrated. Its consistent tracklist, forward-thinking production, performances and legacy makes for a classic album – one that hip hop will likely never experience again.
It goes to show that regardless of its imperfections, Watch the Throne remains the most iconic hip hop album of the last ten years by the two biggest stars hip hop has ever seen.