"“I think that that's something that people will always talk about."
Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was -- the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period -- with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
Living lavish was certainly nothing new to hip-hop by the time of 2011’s much-hyped Watch the Throne release, but few albums could match the credibility of two of the most successful MCs in history -- not just star rappers, but cultural icons and business entrepreneurs -- spending the better part of 46 minutes taking turns flexing their generational wealth. The extended peacocking might have been in slightly poor taste following a financial recession that devastated much of America in the late ‘00s, but if you were looking for escapism, you couldn’t do much better than heading overseas with Jay-Z and Kanye West.
The high-life indulgence of Watch the Throne was something of a victory lap for both rappers after their recent solo highs. Jay had come out of a brief retirement in the late ‘00s and ended the decade with the Alicia Keys-featuring smash “Empire State of Mind,” the rapper’s first Hot 100 No. 1 as a lead artist. Kanye ended the ‘00s on shakier ground, in self-imposed exile following the backlash to his stage-crashing incident at the ‘09 MTV Video Music Awards, but rebounded in 2010 with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, his most acclaimed album to date.
It made sense for the former mentor and protege -- Kanye starting out as a producer for Jay, and eventually signing as a rapper to his Roc Nation label -- to celebrate their comebacks alongside one another. Tellingly, the duo insisted on recording in person: “If we were gonna do it, we were gonna do it together,” Jay said at a 2011 listening party for the album. “No mailing it in.” And so they did, linking up around the world in studios in New York, Los Angeles, Abu Dhabi, Australia, and of course, Paris.
“N---as in Paris” wasn’t the first single from Watch the Throne -- that was the celebratory, mic-swapping soul throwback “Otis” -- but it quickly proved to be the album’s centerpiece and defining track. Its chirping, pulse-racing beat, booming bass and brilliantly deployed dialogue samples (from 2007 ice-skating comedy Blades of Glory, of all movies) made it hit audiences like an adrenaline shot, and Jay and Ye’s verses were so overstuffed with catchphrase-ready quotables that it didn’t even matter that the song barely had a hook or chorus.
“That one is such a tough [song to play] because it was very difficult for radio because the lyrical content -- even cleaned up, it sounds rough,” John Ivey, president of CHR programming strategy for iHeart Media, says of the single. However, fan excitement over the song grew organically at such a rapid rate that it soon become unignorable for PDs. “It got to the point where it was like, ‘How could you not play it?’”
Helping it fit in with the radio landscape of the time was the song’s final minute, in which the song’s ticking, trebly beat seemingly goes over the cliff, landing with that ultimate sonic signifier of the early 2010s: The dubstep drop. Kanye and Jay weren’t the first artists outside of EDM to deploy such a drop in a hit single -- Britney Spears had done it on her Hot 100-topping “Hold It Against Me” earlier in the year -- but few songs used one quite as organically as this, where it sounded like all the hype and delirium the song had built up, it was bound to detonate with such pounding drums, quaking bass and hissing static, courtesy of producer Hit-Boy, then one of the most exciting beatmakers on the planet. It felt like the only way the song could end.
However, evidence showed that audiences were never really ready for “Paris” to end. When taking the song out on their joint Watch the Throne Tour, Jay and Kanye would save it for the end of their set, then performed it three times back to back for increasingly hyped audiences. Then at a date in Miami, they played it five times. Then six times in Boston. Then seven in Detroit, eight in Chicago, nine in Los Angeles, ten the next night in L.A., and finally a record-setting 11 times (then 12 times the next night) in -- where else -- Paris. The live looping of “Paris” made each show on the Throne tour an event, where fans could boast about being in the building on a record-breaking night, only for it to be broken again at another date days later.
Meanwhile, the industry took note of the power that the two MCs had harnessed by linking up for an extended project. While Kanye and Jay’s relationship would strain over the course of the decade, delaying a possible Watch the Throne 2, countless other star rappers attempted to throw their hats in the ring: Drake and Future, Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz, Quavo and Travis Scott. Even star pairings that never actually happened still cast a shadow over the decade; you couldn’t go a year in the 2010s without rumors of a Drake and Rick Ross full-length collab, or a Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole.
On the pre-streaming Hot 100, “Paris” was a sizeable but not astronomical hit, peaking at No. 5 on the first week of 2012. But the live build-up for the song, the way its lyrical phrases (“that s--t cray,” “going gorillas”) entered the general lexicon, the way it captured Kanye and Jay at their mid-career peak, and the general size of the production and its many beat and dialogue drops, it felt unquestionably like one of 2011’s most massive singles -- a cultural moment, likely never to be repeated.
“I think that that's something that people will always talk about, is the time that they got together,” Ivey says. “But you did feel when you were playing that it was an of-the-moment song and you weren't going to be playing it in two years or five years or ten years. It was a definite sign of the times. “