Kanye West is where pop music is at right now. If you want to know what the 21st century sounds like, listen to last year’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In West’s extraordinary mix of rock and soul samples with manic hip-hop grooves, you can hear 50 years of pop culture refracting and contorting in a futuristic digital prism. West has talent on the scale of a Phil Spector or a Lee Scratch Perry: he’s miles ahead of his peers, blazing a trail through his own madness.
But how do you follow a masterpiece? For Watch the Throne, West joins forces with another towering character of contemporary rap, Jay-Z, a lyricist whose skills and delivery are second to none but whose real authority comes from the philosophical and emotional depth that underpins his work.
With its live rhyme-battle roots, hip hop is uniquely suited to pitting wordsmiths against each other. So-called supergroups are all too often less than the sum of their parts, but Watch the Throne showcases rap Olympians competing at their best.
With two big egos on the microphone, braggadocio predictably hits new levels of self-aggrandisement. Yet the wit and absurdity of their rival claims creates a mood of swaggering, cartoonish heroism entirely suited to the epic scale of productions by West and his star studded collaborators.
Tracks bustle and hustle, jamming together samples from soul legends like Otis Redding, James Brown and Nina Simone with counterintuitive snippets of prog rockers Phil Manzanera and Spooky Tooth and ripe, melodic choruses sung by an eclectic array of contemporary stars including Beyoncé, Mr Hudson and La Roux.
West’s attention to detail is mesmerising, piling hook upon sound effect upon melodic twist, so that his grooves never stop developing. This is, indeed, music to boast about.
Crucially, a sense of political purpose drives the whole enterprise towards a higher plane. Counterweighing delight in their own good fortunes with observations from the mean streets, Watch the Throne builds to a powerhouse finale of musings on the worst and best of black culture.
Perhaps the most extraordinary achievement of this funny, hard-hitting, thrilling album is that it actually sounds like a coherent and purposeful piece of work, a statement of what hip hop can mean, and where it can go.