Track Meet: Jackson, Tyson, Jordan: "Watch The Throne" Turns 10
In the "Track Meet" series, we break down albums or projects track by track to show where sports and hip-hop meet.
Few albums started a decade with a splash like "Watch The Throne" did when it crash landed on August 8, 2011. Kanye West and Jay Z had been working together for years prior, mostly with Ye serving as the producer for Jigga's hit songs like "Poppin' Tags," and "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" as he built Roc-A-Fella. Jay appeared on Ye's first two albums and graced "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy," but when they combined forces to release their project as a duo, it created a true cultural moment.
"Watch The Throne" wasn't just a rap album. It was a piece of art. The gold cover art was designed by Riccardo Tisci, the tour took over the world (they broke the record for most times performing a song in a row by playing "N*ggas in Paris" 12 times, in Paris, of course) and the project brought home four Grammy awards.
The album is pure luxury rap as Ye and Hov brag about a lifestyle most of the world can only dream about. Black excellence is celebrated as these men discuss their business dealings, how they hustled out of their respective homes of Chicago and Brooklyn, and their ability to purchase multiple Mercedes-Benzes. Features from Beyonce and Frank Ocean and several classic samples helped elevate this project to an etherealness outside of time.
After "Watch The Throne," the brotherhood went through some hard times as Ye confused the industry with his political tirades and was hospitalized after canceling 21 dates of his Saint Pablo tour. Meanwhile, Jay continued to ink contract after contract building his Roc Nation empire.
We are currently weeks into waiting on "Donda," West's much-anticipated album that features a track where the two reunited. With rumors swirling around a sequel, it's a good time to look back on "Watch The Throne" ten years after its landmark debut.
"No Church In The Wild"
Album opener "No Church in the Wild" has a throbbing drum pattern, a crooning hook from Frank Ocean and an airy bridge from The-Dream that all combine for a spine-chilling effect. Several songs on "Watch The Throne," including this one, were in rotation by athletes, sports teams, movie soundtracks and anyone who needed motivation.
We do have our first car reference here as Jay Z raps about having a Rolls-Royce Corniche, dripped in all white "drug dealer chic."
The mood changes abruptly from "No Church in the Wild" to the inspirational "Lift Off" where Beyonce helps her husband shoot for the stars. There's no direct sports reference here, but it continues the uplifting thematic elements of "Watch The Throne" that still motivate many.
"N*ggas in Paris"
Ah "N*ggas in Paris." So iconic. Besides breaking the aforementioned record for most times in a row for a song being performed live, this cut is certified 8-times platinum, has more than 326 million views on YouTube and grabbed two Grammys.
We could really break down the entire song into how it's the ultimate sports motivator with the mechanical beat provided by Hit-Boy, Mike Dean and Anthony Kilhoffer, braggadocious bars aplenty and "Blades of Glory" skits.
Let's start with Jay Z's verse:
"Ball so hard muthafuckas wanna fine me/First n*ggas gotta find me
What's 50 grand to a muthafucka like me/Can you please remind me?
Ball so hard, this shit crazy/Y'all don't know that don't shit faze me
The Nets could go 0-82/ And I look at you like this shit gravy"
Hov grinds so hard and is so good at what he does that you might as well make him pay because there's surely an offensive foul the way he drives into the paint. He has officially made it as he has zero cares in the world. He references his ownership of the Brooklyn Nets and how the team could go winless in a season and he still DGAF. And remember this was a decade before Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving suited up in the black and white.
Jay Z was minority owner (meaning one-fifteenth of one percent) of the Nets from 2004 to 2013. He was influential in moving the team from New Jersey to Brooklyn and rebranding the Nets with a stark monochromatic color scheme. He sold his ownership stake when he opened his Roc Nation Sports agency.
"Psycho, I'm liable to go Michael/Take your pick
Jackson, Tyson, Jordan/Game six"
Mike Tyson and Michael Jordan references are nothing new in hip-hop. Hov's line, also weaving in Michael Jackson, is a fresh take on Biggie's line on "Victory" about the same three icons. Jay's so great he could be any of the Mikes on any given night. Jordan had many great game six performances, but saved one of his best for last as he sealed the 1998 NBA Finals over the Utah Jazz (completing the Chicago Bulls' second three-peat) with 45 points and the game-winning jumper.
"Chi-Town's D-Rose/Moving the Nets to BK"
Jay Z closes his epic verse with a nod to former Bulls star Derrick Rose and reasserting a major key to being a mogul: ownership.
Now getting to Kanye's verse, which is full of fashion stunts:
"What's Gucci, my n*gga?/What's Louis, my killa?
What's drugs, my dealer?/What's that jacket, Margiela?
Doctors say I'm the illest/'Cause I'm suffering from realness
Got my n*ggas in Paris/And they going gorillas, haah"
Besides how he quirkily draws out "maalll" and "balll" and asks a girl to prove her worth to him in a bathroom "stallll" before criticizing her basicness by ordering fish fillet, at the end of his 16, Ye has some serious rhyme and wordplay with several of the major fashion houses. He name drops Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Maison Margiela as brands he's quite familiar with. Paris is an elite city and he's now among the elite. A recent fashion highlight Yeezy was involved in was when he attended Virgil Abloh's first show as head of menswear for Louis Vuitton.
"Watch The Throne" ushered in a new America with "Otis" sampling Otis Redding and Jay and Ye dancing around in front of an American flag mural. The way they bounced off each other's energy was as smooth as Chris Paul throwing alley-oops to Blake Griffin in the Clippers' Lob City days.
"They say I'm crazy, well, I'm 'bout to go dumb again
They ain't seen me 'cause I pulled up in my other Benz
Last week, I was in my other, other Benz"
Kanye expresses some self-awareness in his verse. This was a few years before his "Ye" album where the cover art declares "I hate bing Bi-Polar its awesome." But besides dealing with his mental health, he also handles some automotive deals, specifically with Mercedes-Benz. He even had more Mercedeses than Lewis Hamilton at the time, since the seven-time Formula 1 champion was still on McLaren when "Watch The Throne" took over the world.
"Gotta Have It"
"Sorry I'm in pajamas, but I just got off the PJ
And last party we had, they shut down Prive
Ain't that where the Heat play? (Yup)
N*ggas hate ballers these days (Yup)
Ain't that like LeBron James?
Ain't that just like D-Wade?"
With a seamless transition, "Watch The Throne" keeps the music education going with "Gotta Have It" sampling James Brown. On this track, Jigga and Ye again show expert teamwork as they trade bars about their baller lifestyle. This song gives special nod to the Miami Heat and club Prive at a time when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were dominating. They didn't win all seven titles that King James promised, but they still did pretty good.
"Racks on racks on racks
Maybachs on 'Bachs on 'Bachs on 'Bachs on 'Bachs
Who in that? Oh shit, it's just Blacks on Blacks on Blacks"
Just wanted to throw in this little line in here because so few people would be able to make three lines of repeating words work. Similar to the Mercedes line in "Otis," Ye has a lot of Maybachs as well. And he doesn't even have a label called Maybach Music.
The mood slows down a lot on the auto-tuned Nina Simone-assisted "New Day" where both Kanye West and Jay Z ponder how they would approach fatherhood with the help of a richly textured soundscape provided by RZA and Mike Dean. They acknowledge their mistakes amid societal pressures and hope that their future sons would make better choices.
"Who Gon Stop Me"
"Last night ain't go so well/Got kicked up out the hotel
Got a little freaky like Marvin Albert/Yes, tell Howard Cosell
You just a commentator if you getting paper
Everybody I know from the hood got common haters"
After a few reflective tracks, "Watch The Throne" picks up the pace again with "Who Gon Stop Me," a racing track produced by Sak Pase, Mike Dean and Kanye West. On his verse, Yeezy references disgraced basketball announcer Marv Albert who was accused of sexual assault in 1997 when a woman said he invited her to his hotel room where he tried to force her into a threesome. Albert lost his job calling games for the Knicks after pleading guilty to charges of assault and battery. In 1998, he was welcomed back to Madison Square Garden and all charges were dismissed after he complied with court-ordered punishment.
Howard Cosell had nothing to do with Albert's incident, but he was a famous announcer on his own, voicing Muhammad Ali's boxing matches and Monday Night Football for decades.
"Murder to Excellence"
"This is to the memory of Danroy Henry"
On the thought-provoking "Murder to Excellence," Kanye and Jay reflect on violence in America and contrast it with the Black excellence that they are able to experience as those who beat the system. The song starts with a dedication to Danroy "DJ" Henry, a college football player from Pace University who was shot and killed by a police officer in October of 2010. Even though the case was investigated for several years, the officer was never charged in Henry's death.
"Illest Motherfucker Alive"
"Eleven in a row, Bill Russell rings
Michael Jordan swag, y'all think Michael Jordan bad
N*gga, I got five more rings than Michael Jordan had
Elvis has left the building, now I'm on the Beatles' ass"
For the first 'Watch The Throne" bonus track, Jay Z uses "Illest Motherfucker Alive" to reassert his dominance and compare himself not to the great Michael Jordan this time, but Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell. Hov broke Elvis Presley's record for most albums to reach No.1 on the Billboard 200 in 2009 when "Blueprint 3" became his eleventh album to reach the top spot. Russell has the most championship rings of any player in NBA history with 11. That's more rings than fingers and five more than His Airness. The Celtics great played for 13 years in Beantown and was a 12-time All-Star. But perhaps what makes him even greater is that he was a player-coach in his last three years as he led the Celtics to his final two championships.
"Prime time, beat by Dion"
This song itself is a sports reference as "Primetime" hearkens to the multitalented Deion "Prime Time" Sanders. No I.D, who produced the track, is actually named Dion as well. Sanders in in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his 14-year career first with the Falcons and then with various other teams where he racked up 53 interceptions and 22 touchdowns as a defensive back and kick returner. Oh, and he played Major League Baseball too. No I.D has become a hall of famer himself for his work with both Jay and Ye, legends like Beanie Sigel and rising stars like Vince Staples. Oh, and he produced a lil track called "Control."
"Still wearing my 23s/They can't fuck with the boy
Far as them sixteens/I'm 23 of it all"
Jay Z is one of hip-hop's biggest trendsetters. When he said it wasn't cool to wear jerseys anymore, people stopped wearing jerseys (kind of). And since he says he still wears Jordans, well... He furthers the comparison between himself and Michael Jordan by saying he's the GOAT of rap verses.
"Prime time,/Basking in the lime
Cassius in his prime/Coloring out of the line"
Kanye picks up where Jigga left off and compares himself to Cassius Clay aka Muhammad Ali. He says that the same way the Louisville Lip didn't play by the rules, he doesn't color in the lines either. And that's why we've gotten beautiful pieces like "Watch The Throne," which ten years later still feels like the same otherworldly experience.