A trip to the planetarium (with Jay-Z and Kanye)

So I ended up going to the launch party for the much-hyped Kanye West/Jay-Z album a couple of nights back, and covering it for The Vine. As ever with these things, it was a strange experience, and I wanted to repost what I wrote here as I was quite happy with it.

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The sun is going down after another long, hot summer’s day in New York City, and TheVine is standing in a queue outside the Museum of Natural History with a couple of hundred journalists and minor celebrities.

Everyone is here to hear Watch the Throne, the superstar collaboration between Jay-Z and Kanye West, which is being given its first semi-public airing tonight in the unlikely surrounds of the Museum’s planetarium. To say security is tight would be something of an understatement — if bag checks were this thorough at airports, there’d be a) absolutely no terrorism and b) regular passenger riots. After a long wait, we’re finally ushered through the museum door two by two, like we’re boarding some sort of hip hop Noah’s Ark, and relieved of anything that looks remotely like it could record audio, video or thoughts in general.

By the time we get in, the reception is well underway in the Planetarium’s atrium. There’s plentiful free booze to be had, along with some outlandish canapés (if you’ve ever wondered what deep-fried mac and cheese tastes like, wonder no longer: it’s artery-clenchingly delicious.) Being as TheVine isn’t well-connected in the higher echelons of the hip hop world, conversation is hard to come by, so we settle for looking at the Planetarium’s fascinating exhibits (a fine opportunity to brush up on the geeky space facts like the radio signals of quasars and the mineral composition of meteorites) and watching the crowd.

Apparently there’s, like, a bazillion celebrities here, although unfortunately we wouldn’t recognize a dread-less Busta Rhymes if he came up and bit us on the arse. We do notice, however, the following: a woman with a tattoo on her back that involves the word “FUCK” (in mirror writing, inexplicably) surrounded by a pair of angel wings; several hip hop mogul types, each of whom are the size of several normal humans combined; a kindly old man who happily provides us with a constant supply of ruinously strong vodka tonics; and, um, Beyoncé. At least, we’re pretty sure it’s Beyoncé. Apparently Nas is also here, but sadly we don’t spot him to throw ourselves at his feet and gibber about just how good Illmatic was.

Eventually, we’re invited to file into the lifts and head upstairs for the start of the listening session. It takes a good 20 minutes to get everyone into the planetarium — and then another 20 minutes for a publicist/drill sergeant to compact the crowd, which has dispersed around the perimeter of the room, into one quadrant of the circular seating arrangement. The reason for this soon becomes clear — we’re making way for Kanye’s entourage!

A flannie-clad West himself appears to muted cheers from the audience, who then sit and wait while he and his crew commence a long and complicated ritual of high fiving, chest bumping and hand clapping with the members of the audience who require such greetings. This all takes another 20 minutes or so, by which time TheVine is starting to have conniptions at the thought of impending print deadlines. (None of this is helped by the leviathan men who are now standing in front of the door, making it very clear that once the music starts, no-one’s going anywhere.)

But, finally, everyone who needs to be greeted is greeted, the lights start to go down, and a sampled breakbeat kicks in at a volume that you could probably have heard back in Australia if you were listening carefully. As Jay-Z’s familiar drawl lopes across the piledriving beats, images of planets and supernovas and galaxies swirl above us. The whole experience is so hilariously grandiose that it’s hard not to be impressed, and judging by the fist-pumping and head-nodding that’s going on all around us, we’re not the only ones who think so — the album sounds massive, and not just because of the intimidating volume at which we’re hearing it.

Say what you like about Kanye West, he’s a hell of a good producer, and first impressions are that he’s outdone himself here. The album has a slamming, old school vibe to it — several of the beats sound like the sort of head-punching kick-‘n’-snare productions that Dr Dre would have been proud of back in the halcyon days of Death Row, although the inevitable AutoTune-enhanced hooks remind us that we’re in 2011, not 1993.

So, yes, Kanye’s production is a credit to this record — now, if only he wouldn’t rap. His verses here generally serve to reinforce the fact that getting on the mic is the least of his talents, and while we’ve never entirely bought into the “Jay-Z is one of the all-time greats” theory, he’s certainly made to shine by comparison here — if nothing else, he doesn’t rhyme “Benz” with “other Benz”, as West does on stand-out single “Otis”, or “zebra” with “fever”, as he does in his opening verse on the album’s first track “No Church in the Wild”. Jay-Z’s rhymes are certainly far more competent, although neither rapper’s work on Watch the Throne goes any distance toward resolving the vexed question of exactly what multi-millionaires so far removed from “the streets” that they launch their album in a planetarium can offer to a genre that’s ostensibly supposed to be about urban reality.

Still, as far as simple entertainment goes, you could do a lot worse than Watch the Throne. Sadly, the absence of any note-taking paraphernalia leaves TheVine to rely on our short term memory to preserve the finer details of the record, with predictably disastrous results. There are some moments that do remain lodged in our head — a track about black-on-black crime (called “Murder to Excellence”, apparently) is memorable, and seems to sample the original non-Massive Attack “Be Thankful for What You’ve Got”. The aforementioned “Otis”, which you’ve probably already heard, is not terrible — and it’s probably worth noting here that the single that preceded it, “H.A.M”, doesn’t appear to feature on the album.

Anyway, suffice it to say that you’ll be hearing a whole lot more of this record over the next few months, and that its creators are very proud of it, as Jay-Z tells dazed and ringing-eared listeners when he appears to make a short speech once the album’s done. As he concludes his talk, the assembled entourages start to make their way to the bar next door to work their way through the rest of the champagne, but considering how much of Kanye’s vodka we’ve already drunk, TheVine decides that this is a judicious moment to slip downstairs, reclaim our bag and hail a taxi. 24 hours later, our head is still aching and our ears are still ringing — and, as far as we’re concerned, that’s gotta be a good sign.

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