Something Like a Neo-Rap Zack Attack
The astoundingly stupid name that Kanye West and Jay-Z coined for themselves ("The Throne") and the duo's embarrassing first single, "H•A•M," were harbingers enough for the questionable aesthetic of "couture hip hop" found within their newest release, Watch the Throne. West has been preoccupied with this glitzy tone since 2007—Graduation, which marked the point where his previous semi-conscious style transmogrified into an ugly obsession with three themes: money ("Good Life"), power ("Stronger"), and fame ("The Glory"). West's work ethic and ambition remained peerless, but he began to use them to create grandiose pop art, eschewing the backpack hip hop he had pioneered. You need to look no further than the one-syllable-per-beat flow on "I Wonder" to recognize that the days of "All Falls Down" had passed.
Not unlike Graduation, Watch the Throne tries very hard to succeed on a grand level and somewhat misses the mark. The album isn't terrible—the triumvirate of "Ni**as in Paris," "Otis," and "Gotta Have It" exists as an impressive, albeit redundant, display of swag. "That's My B*tch" pulls a great verse out of West, and the final song on the deluxe edition, "The Joy," is a flat out masterpiece. But the rest seems rather disappointing. How the hook of "Welcome to the jungle / welcome to the jungle, well" made the cut, and why Swizz Beatz was chosen to spit it, remains a mystery. West jacks his best line on "Murder to Excellence" from Jay-Z's 2003 song "Lucifer." And I don't think anybody pointed out to Frank Ocean the double negative ("a nonbeliever who don't believe in anything") found in the chorus of "No Church in the Wild." I could nitpick less, maybe, but I would still be left with a nagging question: is this the best they could do? The criteria for success that define the album (money, power, fame) trip the album's two (very talented) protagonists into a dictatorial high—laughable at best, delusional at worst. If they didn't commit so entirely to this ideal, I'd have been more inclined to indulge in it.
Which is why I've really been enjoying Das Racist's latest work, Relax. As with Watch the Throne, money, power, and fame define the album's content, but the Brooklyn duo (trio?) craft the record in a more subtle, clever manner. Abstaining from their previous mixtape's use of notable hip hop guest producers (Boi-1da, Devo Springsteen), Das Racist instead employ a cast of indie beatmakers (Patrick Wimberly of Chairlift, Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend). Underground/independent stylizing certainly doesn't imply a better product, but it does imply a deliberate direction of production—why make an album boasting about success when its producers are unknown? The group does it anyway, but with a nod and a wink; verses like "Fire scientist / McGuyver my appliances / Describe the flyest buying this / I am this, I insist" reveal both skillful intelligence and nonsensical braggadocio. The group seems awfully insecure about its showboating, going as far to say that "It's too easy / Even if I told you about it, you probably wouldn't even believe me." This condescension/vulnerability contrast presents a far more interesting construct than the straightforward shit-talk heard on Watch the Throne.
Plus, we get the pleasure of hearing "Rainbow in the Dark" again. Internet thugs claim it's filler repeated from the group's first mixtape. I say its inclusion is ironic. The i-word is dangerous to use in the hipster era, but "I'm at the White Castle / I don't see you here, dawg" is hardly an egoist's mantra. It ultimately affords the group the liberty to cop to sarcasm if the focus on power ever appears too serious. Ambiguity, then, doesn't just flavor the album—it defines it. Compare this to the one-dimensional power trip of Watch the Throne. I'll give you a hint: one of them is a lot more interesting. Sure, you can level a number of valid criticisms at Das Racist—they're hipster rap, they're weed rap, they're terrible live performers (remember the show at Pitzer?), whatever—but they bring a challenging, humorous, and fresh ideology to a table of pop music with few other occupants. Kanye West and Jay-Z have certainly earned their seats there as well, but Watch the Throne doesn't reflect this standing. I'm sure the two have it in them—I know West does, at least—so I still eagerly await their future solo albums. Until then, I'll bump Relax.