Jay-Z leaves Sant Ambroeus restaurant in the West Village after having an early dinner with some friends. (June 18, 2011)
*Below, writer Theo Spielberg of AOL’s The Boombox gives a detailed account of Jay-Z’s exclusive listening party for “Watch the Throne, his anticipated new album with one-time protégé Kanye West.
The lobby of the Mercer Hotel was crowded with industry types on Thursday night (July 7): various members of the press, music journalists, bloggers, magazine reps and then two teen boys, who sat with their parents conspicuously.
The miniature mob, at the behest of a publicist, crowded into an elevator — thick with the smell of marijuana smoke — in two tightly packed shifts. Everyone in attendance was there to listen to Jay-Z’s most recent collaboration with Kanye West — the hotly anticipated and oft pushed-back dual album ‘Watch the Throne.’
The previously mentioned teenagers were the first two to pre-order the album, thus receiving an invite to the exclusive listening party. The boys as well as the crowd filed into Hova’s hotel room in neat single file to find him sitting alone on a chair and, in the most literal sense of the phrase, “straight chillin’.”
The Brooklyn MC — without West due to his attendance at Paris Fashion Week Haute Couture — had a makeshift studio set-up in the room, also pervaded by the smell of pot. The Mercer Hotel is the most recent in a list of recording destinations that includes L.A., Paris, Bath (England), Australia and assorted other locations in New York City. The industry whisper in the small elevator was that Jigga and West recorded in a hotel room because, after every studio session, tracks were “mysteriously” leaked.
Jay switched on some afro-pop for mood music as alternate people around the room took turns yelling, “Swag!” He quieted the room and singled out the second teenager to pre-order the album. “Yo, this is the first time No. 2 won anything,” Jay-Z mused. He then invited the stragglers in the doorway to come sit on the floor campfire style, as people introduced themselves in a clockwise fashion, all while the rapper popped a cork on a bottle.
The only way to describe the music heard is maximalist, everything all the time. We’re talking finger tapping and NASA samples here. Remember that Swizz Beatz track, ‘On to the Next One’ from ‘The Blueprint 3′? Well, that is essentially the jumping off point for this new batch of tracks. The hard, unrelenting wall of sound that was ‘H.A.M.’ serves as a rough blueprint for ‘Watch the Throne,’ though Jay-Z is quick to qualify the song as the technical peak of his and Kanye’s combined musical experience, yet dismissing it with the sober wisdom of “You definitely don’t want to go ‘H.A.M.’ in the house.” Nonetheless, it seems both artists have hit their baroque period.
‘H.A.M.,’ the only official release from the ‘Watch the Throne’ sessions, has served as something as a yardstick by which they have measured the rest of the album. According to Jay, they started out huge, in the hard-as-a-motherf—– vein. They have since then continued to dial-down the intensity and are on the third incarnation of this much-delayed album. The philosophical posed by ‘H.A.M.’ and dealt with by the rest of the album is this: “Can something be artistically brilliant and yet unenjoyable?”
The songs that hit the hardest on ‘Watch the Throne’ are those that are comparatively of medium to soft intensity — meaning they are still pretty intense. He channels the ’70s soul of Otis Redding, on a song tentatively entitled ‘Otis,’ a la ‘The Blueprint,’ to great effect. Beyonce and Frank Ocean, among others, make appearances on the 15-plus tracks Jay-Z played during the night.
Lyrically, the album is incredibly rich, including a song where Kanye goes down the laundry list of his less-than-savory qualities that he urges his unborn son to steer clear of. Musically, the true standout track samples the famously transcendent ‘Ave Maria’ over speedy quarter note triplets to astounding effect.
All the while, Jay-Z sat in his chair vibing to his tracks. Say what you will about the album title, Jay-Z isn’t watching the throne, he’s sitting in it comfortably.