Jay-Z and Kanye West's 2011 Watch the Throne is a self-avowed "luxury rap" album centered on Eurocentric conceptions of nobility, artistry, and haute couture. Critical Excess performs a close reading of the sonic and social commentary on this album, examining how the album alternately imagines and critiques the mutually reinforcing ideas of Europe, nobility, old money, art, and their standard bearer, whiteness. Reading the album alongside Black critical theory and work on the prophetic nature of music, Rollefson argues that through their performance of black excellence, opulence, and decadence_,_ Jay-Z and Kanye West poured gas on the white resentment of the Obama presidency—a resentment that would ultimately spill over into public life, make audible the dog whistling of the Far Right, and embolden white supremacists to come out from under their rocks. Ultimately, Rollefson argues, Jay-Z and Kanye West's performance of what Rollefson calls "critical excess" on this album exceeds the limits of conspicuous consumption and heralds the final stage of late capitalism—"the New Gilded Age."
Fig. 1. Album cover art for Watch the Throne (2011) and To Pimp a Butterfly (2015). Watch the Throne is a “luxury rap” album and is packaged accordingly. In contrast, the cover art for To Pimp a Butterfly represents the contradicting frames of Black excellence and Black poverty.
Ex. 1. Sample of up-spiraling, “kaleidoscopic” Phil Manzanera guitar loop on “No Church in the Wild.” The third through sixth sixteenth notes of the second half of the bar are an approximation as that section is layered with an overdub (transcription by the author and Mary J. King).
Fig. 4. Still from the music video for “Apeshit” (dir. Ricky Saiz). Beyoncé and Jay-Z stand atop the Louvre’s grand staircase with the Winged Victory of Samothrace at their backs and dancers lying supine on the steps.