Battle Royal: Jay-Z and Kanye West Take "Watch the Throne" Global to Fend Off the Hip-Hop Hordes

Hova and Yeezy, comfortably affixed atop their kingly chairs.
Matthew Peyton

In the spring of 1789, a quiet revolutionary fervor seized the rebellious bourgeoisie in France. While King Louis XVI and his cake-eating wife, Marie Antoinette, fattened in Château de Versailles, war, economic strife, and class inequality swept the land. A good 222 years after the rebels sharpened the guillotine and picked out baskets for Louis and Marie's severed heads, a vicious onslaught of 20-something rappers plot the overthrow of hip-hop's royal family, headed by Jay-Z and Kanye West.

As unrest and upheaval sweeps across the world via Arab Spring and the Tea Party's battle with Occupy Wall Street movement on American soil, Hova and 'Ye have banded together to Watch the Throne. The phrase is the title of their partnership, a 12-track collaborative album pitched as the definitive artistic document from two of the game's current kings. It's also an offensive against the rabid, internet-mobilized mob of upstart MCs actively conspiring to push these rich rappers off their solid-gold seats.

In 2011, Forbes-listed Jay-Z is hip-hop's Louis XVI, high-strung Kanye West plays Marie Antoinette, and Los Angeles rap crew Odd Future is cast as the hyperviolent hordes raging at the gates with an insatiable hunger for buckets of royal blood.

Jay-Z and Kanye West don't need to be dethroned, but it's inevitable. In terms of internet saturation, Odd Future's Tyler the Creator and company are slowly stalking through the streets toward the Roc Nation and Good Music compounds with youth on their side. Hova is a 41-year-old married man with an heir on the way in Beyoncé's womb, and Yeezy's become a 34-year-old man-child desperately trying to hold onto his status as hip-hop's enfant terrible.

And there's no more embarrassing example of their rapidly advancing age than a silly boast about having been the progenitors of "swag," the name of the very movement that's threatening to overturn and torch their twin thrones.

"I invented swag," Jay-Z goofily insists on "Otis," the lead single off their album, before resorting to standard pimpin' stereotypes ("Poppin' bottles, puttin' supermodels in the cab"), shouting out his $20,000 wristwear ("New watch alert, Hublot/Or the big face Roley, I got two of those"), and just generally revealing his and Kanye's fundamental misunderstanding of the whole Odd Future-led uprising. It's what could be called a "Let Them Eat Cake" moment.

Another omen of Jay and Kanye's inevitable decline: The pair's recent solo slabs, guest spots, and even Watch the Throne all are increasingly uninspired and rigidly formulaic. No longer the chief focus of their kingdom, the rappers' music is another means (in addition to record labels, fashion lines, autobiographical tomes, etc.) to push and profit off an increasingly extravagant brand geared less and less toward the streetheads, AKA the real rap fans.

The middle-aged millionaires' mushrooming elitism echoes throughout Watch the Throne's track list, and its appearance follows. In an age when the compact disc is dying a sad, protracted death, the disc dons a gaudy, gold cover that looks like it was ripped right out of the fucking ceiling at Versailles.

Still, Hova and Yeezy remain comfortably fixed atop their kingly chairs for the moment. And perhaps the pair's Watch the Throne tour engagements will briefly quell the onward march of those swagged-out masses seeking to unseat, beat, and extinguish them.

Early reports on Jay and 'Ye's massive U.S. excursion have been wholly positive, brimming with adulation. Credit live production featuring elaborate stage sets, equally elaborate minisets, 50-foot floating cubes, building-sized LED screens, levitating platforms, laser shows, even Givenchy-designed American flags. And there's undoubtedly a dazzling kind of intimacy to actually holding court with a king. Like another once-omnipotent, now-waning rap royal — Lil Wayne — whose recent blazing trek around the country seemed to contradict the lame morass of his latest album, Jay-Z and Kanye aim to emerge from the Watch the Throne tour having beaten back the pretenders and punk bitches.

After all, these kings have been to war. They've already been guarding their huge and exalted solid-gold thrones for over a decade. And this wouldn't be the first time they've fended off the hip-hop hordes.

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