I love going to the movies, and the ultimate theater experience is the prestigious blockbuster. There's a special energy when that blockbuster, that new epic, comes along. The AC is that much colder, the popcorn is that much less stale-ish, and unlike that 10 PM weekday showing, the theater is packed. Normally a packed theater is hell, but when it’s a movie full of explosions and surprises, you want the theater full; there’s something communal and awesome about sharing that experience with 100 other strangers. I’ll see that four hour Oscar winning drama about a kid growing up without legs who wins the Olympics, but at the end of the year, if you ask me which movie I had the most fun seeing, I’m going with the one that had the sexiest special effects, the cheapest laughs, and if all goes well, the boobs. But as much fun as I had, leaving the theater after that blockbuster with a smile on face and a few less brain cells will really be the last time I ever really think about that movie; no matter how boob-filled it was. The blockbuster is the kind of movie you enjoy once, love, and never see again.
Take Avatar, one of the best blockbusters in recent memory. Sure the plot is a two-bit knockoff of Pocahontas and the acting is sub-par, but shit man, the 3D. Now 3D movies are a dime a dozen, but back in ‘09 I had never seen anything like it; it really was revolutionary. I remember ducking as something jumped out at me. It was literally one of the most incredible movie experiences I've ever had – I've never watched it again. In the theater on a giant screen with a slushie in hand, surrounded by other insanely hyped pepole, it was amazing, but at home alone on a Friday night? No way. It was great in the moment, but the lifespan of that movie, the lifespan of most great summer blockbusters, is shorter than Illmatic. It’s a piece of fruit stripe gum, chewed for a minute, salivated over, then stuck under the seat at the movies and forgotten about, joining the wad of thousands of other now flavorless, all already masticated summer “masterpieces”.
Now, with its four year anniversary just days away, I've come to realize that Watch The Throne is the Avatar of hip-hop. The similarities are uncanny.
Collaborative album are like threesomes; often talked about, often sought after, but very rarely executed. Sure a collaborative project between Kendrick and Cole, or K.R.I.T and Yelawolf sounds great, but think of all the behind-the-scene work. Not only do two artists have to dedicate time, synch schedules and set aside egos, but the labels have to work out a deal to split the cost and profit of these albums; think they like doing that when they could just make 100% of the profit on their artist's solo album?
It’s what makes Watch The Throne so remarkable. Two of the most prolific, most popular artists not just in rap but in music, set out to record and release an album…and they actually did it. Plus, it’s Jay fuckin' Z and Kanye fuckin' West. Though at the time of the release, I was stuck in a post-graduate spiral of endless bong rips and Call of Duty matches, even I was tapped in. I still remember being shell shocked like a 1940 Frenchman from all the Funk Flex bombs when he premiered “Otis.” For a long while that was the only version of the song I had. I remember being excited when it dropped but hearing it mostly though the wall of my creepy Craigslist roommate's cave. How could that be? How could a collaborative album featuring two of the best, two of my favorite emcees, capture us so completely for a moment but not for years? I never once thought to spin this album until this four year anniversary. How is it that this album, which should be fan fans dream, rarely gets mentioned when you discuss their respective, impressive discographies?
It’s the rap game Avatar.
It’s historical, it’s fun, it’s sleek, but it’s just not that good. I almost feel guilty saying that, it sends a shiver up my spine, but it’s the truth. I’ve been listening to Watch The Throne from the past few weeks now in preparation to write this and with the exception of “Murder To Excellence” and “The Joy” I haven’t felt a single thing. Like Mad Max like Avatar, Watch The Throne is exciting and pretty to “look” at in the moment, but it’s all sizzle and no steak. It’s filled with musical pyrotechnics and large, ostentatious landscapes that look incredible but leave you very little to come back to because there’s no story, no plot. It's a macrocosm of the “Otis” video.
Instead of the 3D hook they have the star-power pitch. Over their gaudy, overproduced beats they trade equally empty, stunt-filled bars boasting about fame, wealth, and how much better they are than anyone else because they are rich and powerful. They relied so heavily on us being wowed that it was Jay and Kanye, it left it devoid of any substance,meaning, and effort.
I don’t mean to make it sound like I hate the album, I don’t. If you put this on I would have no problem listening to it (except for “H.A.M” and “Welcome To The Jungle”), but it would go in one ear out the other. I would enjoy it and then forget about it again as soon as you picked up the needle. Like Avatar it’s good in the moment – back in 2011 we were all excited because it was so “new”, it was something that’s never been done – but after you experienced it, you realize the experience was everything. Being there in the moment, being able to say you were in the crowd the night they did “Niggas in Paris” fourteen times in a row is an incredible, but it's still only a memory. Jay and Kanye are special, there is no doubt about it. They are showstoppers. They command our attention. They captivate us like no other emcee can. But while their solo albums have the ability to connect with us on a deeper level, to pull us back into them years after they first dropped, on Watch the Throne, when they're wrestling for their time in the limelight, their magic just doesn’t translate.
Just last night Kanye played “Niggas In Paris” at OVOFest and naturally the crowd went nuts. If I was there I would have lost my mind, but how many people do you think went home and listened to Watch The Throne? As exciting as it would be in the moment, going nuts with thousands of other fans, would it compel you to go home, sit down and listen to this album cover to cover, or would you just out “Paris” back in your rotation for a week or so? The lavish, special-effect laden route is great for a one time watch in an optimal setting like a festival or a theater, but it provides little real value because there’s nothing to unpack later. It can be fully comprehended and understood in one sitting, albeit an enjoyable one.
Like, like any summer blockbuster, like Avatar, it turns out it was only worth watching the throne once.
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]