It’s been nearly two decades since Jay-Z and Kanye West first met, and six years since their game-changing joint album Watch The Throne.
Jay’s contentious bars on the 4:44 track “Kill Jay-Z” all but confirm reports that they are on the outs, but blood is thicker than rumors. So, it’s worth looking back at how the self-proclaimed rap gods got to this low point in their relationship after years of collaboration and mentorship.
Since 2000, when a young Kanye got his first Roc-A-Fella production credit on Beanie Sigel’s “The Truth,” the two have shared stronger chemistry than Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. Their partnership was fueled by Jay’s introspective storytelling and ‘Ye’s visionary soundscaping. Jay’s 2001 masterpiece The Blueprint was driven by the soul-sample heavy sound that upstart producers Kanye, Just Blaze and Bink! rejuvenated at the turn of the millennium.
After Jay-Z’s suspected shots on 4:44, let’s look back at The Throne’s rise to power and fall from grace.
2000: “This Can’t Be Life”
Kanye had been chasing hip hop dreams throughout the late 1990’s, working with legendary producers No I.D., Jermaine Dupri and Deric “D-Dot” Angeletti before finding a home at Roc-A-Fella. Once Roc A&Rs Gee Roberson and Kyambo “Hip-Hop” Joshua placed Ye’s beats in the hands of artists like Beanie Sigel and Jay, Mr. West was on his way. His beats got passed around the Roc’s roster until one particularly soulful tape was picked for the Big Homie. When Jay played the finished product, a heart-wrenching collaboration with Scarface and Beanie Sigel, Kanye was less than ecstatic. He was hoping Hov would bless him with a chart-topping hit that would make him famous. But Jay was looking for a producer who could push him into further realms of creativity.
Here is Kanye explaining his first interaction with Jay on 2004’s “Last Call:”
That was like, really the first beat of that kind that was on The Dynasty album. I could say that was the the resurgence of the soul sound. You know, I got to come in and track the beat and at the time I was still with my other management. I really wanted to roll with hip hop cause I, I just needed some fresh air, you know what I’m sayin’ cause I been there for a while. I appreciated what they did for me but, you know there’s a time in every man’s life where he gotta make a change. Try to move up to the next level. And that day I came and I tracked the beat and I got to meet Jay-Z and he said, “Oh you a real soulful dude.”
And he, uh, played the song cause he already spit his verse by the time I got to the studio. You know how he do it, one take. And he said, ”Check this out, tell me what you think of this, right here.”
“Tell me what you think of this.” And I heard it, and I was thinking like, man, I really wanted more like of the simple type Jay-Z. I ain’t want like the, the more introspective, complicated rhy- or the… in my personal opinion. So he asked me, “What you think of it?”
And I was like, “Man that shit tight,” you know what I’m sayin’, man what I’ma tell him? I was on the train, man, you know.”
Almost two decades later, it’s clear that their awkward introduction was the beginning of an incredible legacy.
2001: “The Takeover,” “Heart Of The City,” and “Izzo”
Kanye wasn’t exaggerating when he took credit for the “resurgence” of soulful samples in popular hip hop. After flipping the popular Jackson 5 song “I Want You Back,” into Jay’s hit single “Izzo (HOVA),” Kanye became one of the most in-demand young producers in the game. His dream was always to rap, but he was using his beats to get in the door.
‘Ye would go on to lace everyone from Twista to Alicia Keys with some of the biggest hits of their careers, but his purest product went directly back into the Roc-A-Fella system. As the Roc’s Big Homie, Jay got first pick of tracks like “Heart Of The City,” which Kanye had initially made with DMX in mind. With Jigga’s global platform and Kanye’s revolutionary new product, the Roc found its Blueprint and the seeds that would grow into The Throne were planted.
2002: “Guess Who’s Back,” “Bonnie & Clyde,” & “The Bounce”
Once the Roc recognized Kanye’s talent for making beats, he began to push for more influence in the studio. In addition to promoting his own raps to whomever would listen, Kanye also began writing more mainstream-friendly songs for Jay, like the Beyoncé collaboration “03 Bonnie & Clyde.”
By flipping 2Pac’s 1997 ode to his gun into a new millennium’s ride or die anthem, ‘Ye gained even more clout in the industry, and with Jay himself. By Jay’s next release, The Black Album, Kanye would be a primary creative muse alongside Pharrell, Timbaland, Just Blaze and Rick Rubin. And just as he was establishing himself as an elite producer, Yeezy was also beginning to convince the big dogs at the Roc that he could rock the mic, too.
“The Bounce,” off Jay’s Blueprint 2, was West’s first official verse alongside his idol. In retrospect, it’s far from Ye’s tightest verse, but his one-of-a-kind charisma was impossible to ignore, even then. In 2002, ‘Ye also scored the honor of saying the chorus for Jay, Scarface and Beanie Sigel on “Guess Who’s Back.” Nobody realized it at the time, but Kanye West’s voice was about to define a generation.
2003: “Encore,” “Lucifer,” “Get By (Remix)”
This footage of Kanye presenting the idea for “Lucifer” in the studio marks the first time we saw ‘Ye leading Jay in the studio. Hov has always been a master lyricist, but he wisely leans on the greatest composers he can find when he needs inspiration for an album. By 2003, Kanye was killing the game by all accounts, and Jigga wasn’t about to let his top prospect’s production go to waste on his competition.
Kanye helped craft “Encore,” the cornerstone track of Jay’s retirement tour, but he also pulled Jay into more socially conscious circles. It’s no coincidence that Jay was name-checking Common and Talib Kweli on “Moment Of Clarity,” and jumping on remixes to “Get By” and Dead Prez’s “Hell Yeah,” after Kanye’s emergence. ‘Ye brought the shift that made consciousness profitable in mainstream rap, and Jay, who was always pro-Black in his principles, could now get politically incorrect without sacrificing sales.
West’s first legitimate co-sign as a rapper came from Talib Kweli, who invited him to tour with him when everyone else was just trying to get discounted beats. And while Jay would still never take the stage to jack a white artist of their privilege on live TV, it’s clear that being around ‘Ye has made the Jigga Man more comfortable addressing social issues no matter how they affect the bottom line. “The Story Of O.J.” would have never worked as a single in 2003, but it’s hard to argue that Jay hasn’t been living by its codes for his entire career.
Looking back, it’s interesting how the social perception of both men has changed since they joined force. Jay and Beyoncé have created an empire of Black excellence and become powerful players in America’s current movement for social justice, while Kanye has become a social pariah for his unstable behavior and short-sighted attempts at changing humanity’s complex paradigms.
2004: “Never Let Me Down”
Kanye’s debut album College Dropout wasn’t expected to blow up the way it did. It was released in the final days of the Roc-A-Fella dynasty, and represented a stark shift from the street-heavy content the label was known for. Unlike Jay, Beanie Sigel and State Property, Kanye was a middle class kid who loved designer brands and art. His mother was a college professor and he had recently walked away from a full ride art scholarship to pursue a career in music. Few could have guessed that his privileged pride would speak to millennial consumers more than Jay’s aging tales of crack sales, but after the success of “Through The Wire,” “Jesus Walks” and multiple mixtape and feature placements, there was no denying that Yeezy was a LeBron-like phenomenon.
“Never Let Me Down” felt like the official passing of the torch, with a recently-retired Jay providing opening and closing verses for an intense spiritual journey that includes some of ‘Ye’s most personal rhymes. Their mutual promise to “get up” and “get down” for one another has held true over the years, and the often-overlooked album cut stands as one of their most organic collaborations to date. If they really are on bad terms, one time listening to this soul-shaking track should remind them of the power of their connection and get them on a call together.
2005: “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”
Kanye: “People asking me, “Is I’m gon’ give my chain back?/That’ll be the same day I give the game back./You know the next question, dog, “Yo, where Dame at?”/This track the Indian dance that bring our rain back/“What’s up with you and Jay, man? Are y’all okay, man?—“
Jay-Z: “—Yup! I got it from here, Ye, damn.”
The Roc’s break-up was complicated by ‘Ye’s decision to ride with Jay, his distant idol, instead of Dame and Biggs, the O.G.’s that had signed and cultivated him as a solo artist in years prior. Jay mostly saw Kanye as a producer back then — a tool to improve his own product — but by 2005’s Late Registration, it was clear that West had cracked a cheat code in American pop culture and he wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
‘Ye’s unapologetic Blackness and European chic made him bigger than anything the Roc could have imagined when they formed in 1996. The peak of his crossover hype came in 2005 when, during a charity telethon for Hurricane Katrina, Kanye called out George Bush and the media for their unfair treatment of Black people.
The 2Pac-level realness scored big points for Yeezy across the board, and positioned him as a voice that could be even more impactful than Jay’s. While Jigga was always sure to keep things thorough and business-oriented, West introduced a polar new approach of defiance — one that has resurfaced many times at awards shows and performances. His unapologetic truth pushed the Roc to a new place of pop culture relevance, even as its ugly split forced its disciples to choose sides. As things fell apart behind the scenes, the golden child sided with Jay because he could do far more for his budding career than Dame.
As the newly-minted president of Def Jam, Jay was chasing a bigger dream: corporate clout. Jay’s new focus left a wide open lane for West to explode as rap’s newest superstar. Still, perhaps inspired by Ye, Jay couldn’t resist coming out of retirement to drop a few clutch gems and show the world he could still walk on water.
2006: “Do You Wanna Ride”
Jay’s official return from retirement was weird, but welcomed. Kanye eased the transition and helped the vet get his legs back on this underrated banger, featuring John Legend. Over a soulful baseline, Jay gets back in his “crack rap” bag and delivers one of Kingdom Come’s best tracks, showing his journey from moving cases of coke to being endorsed by Coca-Cola.
In ‘Ye’s world, Mr. West remains the hardest working man in hip hop, and the most relevant by MTV standards. In January, he poses on the cover of Rolling Stone as Jesus (foreshadowing his 2013 album, Yeezus) and continues his evolution into fashion icon by announcing his debut line, Pastel.
2007: “Big Brother”
On his third solo album, Graduation, Kanye squared off with 50 Cent for the title of hip hop’s biggest name, post-Jigga. ‘Ye won the battle for opening week records sales, snagging his third number one album, but he also proved once and for all that mainstream hip hop’s aesthetic had shifted greatly since 50’s 2002 debut, Get Rich Or Die Tryin.’
With Jay still hard at work in the boardroom, West wasn’t about to let people forget about the man who made his rise possible. “Big Brother” was a heartfelt and deeply personal track in the vein of “Hey Mama,” which saw West vulnerably admitting his great respect for Hov.
Fresh off the plane, I’m off to Baseline
Nothing handed out, I’m ’bout to take mine
’round the same time of that Blueprint 1
And these beats in my pocket was that blueprint for him
I’d play my little songs in that old back room
He’d bob his head and say “Damn! Oh, that’s you?”
But by The Black Album, I was blacking out
Partyin’ S.O.B.’s and we had packed a crowd
Big brother got his show up at Madison Square
And I’m like “Yeah, yeah, we gon’ be there” but
Not only did I not get a chance to spit it
Carline told me I could buy two tickets
I guess big brother was thinkin’ a little different
And kept little brother at bay, at a distance
But everything that I felt was more bogus
Only made me more focused, only wrote more potent
– Kanye West, “Big Brother”
Jay confirmed in an interview that the facts ‘Ye spit on the record were indeed true, but also hinted at the tension and misunderstandings brewing in their relationship. When West griped that Jay once had an assistant tell him he had to buy two tickets to the historic “Fade To Black” show, Jay says he left out the part where he had already received four for free.
2008: “Roc Boys,” “Put On (Remix),” “Swagger Like Us”
“They say, “Damn, Yeezy Yeezy, you don’t know us no more?/You got that big fame, homie, and you just changed on me/You can ask big homie, man, the top so lonely.”
After his mother, Donda West, passed during a surgical operation, West was in the most vulnerable state of his life. At the same time, he was the undisputed champion of popular music. With ‘Ye on his own mission for stardom, Jay went back to his roots and hooked up with Diddy for American Gangster.
Still, Jay and ‘Ye found time to connect briefly on “Roc Boys,” where West contributes an ad-lib, and on Young Jeezy’s “Put On,” to which Jay added his own remix verse. They also took the stage at the Grammys with T.I. and Lil Wayne to perform their dream team track “Swagger Like Us,” which placed them next to the two other heavyweights of the rap game and further established their dominance in mainstream music.
2009: “Hate,” “What We Talkin Bout,” & “D.O.A”
“Ye told me to kill y’all to keep it 100.” – Jay-Z, “D.O.A. (Death Of Autotune)
Kanye and Jay’s power dynamic shifted sharply in 2009. Jay’s main interests were corporate, leaving Ye to lead the way thematically and creatively on The Blueprint 3. Kanye’s 2008 album “808s & Heartbreak” had opened the door for imitators to abuse the “autotune” voice effect that T-Pain, West and Lil Wayne had revitalized.
Jay seemed to be the only voice of reason that could sway artists away from the cheap trend, but his shoutout to ‘Ye made it clear that he wasn’t the only who’d noticed the copycats.
With Barack Obama in office and Bey on top of the world, Jay was now showing his creativity in realms beyond art. His political connects, media stans and corporate endorsers all had faith in HOVA and bet big on his master plan. What other rappers talked about, he did. With a minority stake in the Brooklyn Nets and their new stadium in Bed-Stuy, he was tripling down on his Blueprint. His shameless reach for pop relevance paid off, “Empire State Of Mind” featuring Alicia Keys became his first number one hit. And Miley Cyrus was shouting him out on the pop stations. As a musician, Jay was finally inching closer to the pop world relevance Kanye had been enjoying since his debut. And Kanye was approaching his peak creative form.
2010: “Monster,” “So Appalled,” & “Power” (Remix)
“Rumble, young man, rumble/Life is a trip, so sometimes we gonna stumble/You gotta go through pain in order to become you/But once the world numbs you, you’ll feel like it’s only one you.” – Jay-Z, “Power (Remix)”
Many argue that 2010’s Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is Kanye’s best release, and Jay-Z, who appeared on a record three tracks on West’s fifth solo album, may second that opinion. After insulting Taylor Swift (and by proxy, white America) at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, Kanye disappeared from pop culture for almost six months. He was reportedly studying fashion in Europe, but he was also clearly plotting one of the most game-changing albums and promotional runs in music history.
‘Ye emerged from his European hibernation by summer time and launched his infamous (but recently-deleted) Twitter account to keep his messages to fans organic in the age of spin. He also revealed that his intense recording process had become even more laser-focused: Month-long sessions in Hawaii complete with healthy food, gym time, no distractions and hip hop legends like RZA and Pusha T showed everyone that Yeezy meant business. He was clearly listening closely to the motivational bars Hov shared on the “Power (Remix),” when he reminded West to not sweat his past slip-ups and focus on the goal in front of him.
2011: “Otis,” “Gotta Have It,” & “Niggas In Paris”
The idea of a collaborative album had been teased for years, but 2011 was the first time it made sense. Kanye had surpassed Jay in musical relevance, but Hov was as famous as ever in pop circles thanks to his marriage to Beyoncé.
The outcome was well worth the wait, as the duo over-delivered and blessed fans with one of the most ambitious albums of the past decade. Everything from the packaging to the release (the first album of the digital era not to leak online early, thanks to an inventive digital release strategy) was above-and-beyond, proving once and for all that the two Roc boys were operating at a level we had never seen before.
Their chemistry was tighter than ever on songs like “Otis,” and “Gotta Have It,” and they shared the spotlight masterfully throughout the the LP. Ye ventured further into the experimental lands that would birth Yeezus on tracks like “Lift Off” and Jay reigned things in lyrically whenever necessary, making Watch The Throne a highlight of both MCs storied careers. The Throne’s most lasting quote may be their popularization of the phrase, “Black Excellence,” shorthand for the double-time standard of greatness they have rarely failed to live up to.
This was Hov and ‘Ye’s last official recording. But now, the track’s haunting chords are also associated with the first wave of West’s famous concert diatribes. As he compared himself to Steve Jobs and Walt Disney, fans on both sides of West’s global audience shifted their view of him. He seemed obsessed with a type of success no part of society wanted to see him aiming for.
His conscious roots disapproved of his desire for White approval. The pop fans he’d endeared himself to with hits like “Gold Digger” were simply amused by his “rants” and laughed as he married Kim Kardashian, creating social media’s first power couple, but the underlying theme of his message didn’t go unnoticed. He was already the target of what he called a “neo-lynching,” the online beating he took from the mainstream media in the name of Taylor Swift. But between Kanye’s unstable Twitter timeline and Kim’s insanely perfect Instagram feed, many still saw a part of themselves — even if they didn’t like it.
And of course, we made excuses: West was simply grieving his late mother. Of course, Jay had to let his little bro rock; even if wifey wasn’t trying to have their family around any parts of it. When Jay and Bey reportedly skipped Kim and Kanye’s Italian wedding, the whispers hit a fever pitch. We haven’t heard them on a track together since.
2013: Magna Carta Holy Grail vs. Yeezus
By now, both members of The Throne had successfully labeled themselves as pop’s modern prophets. Hip hop is the fifth most streamed musical genre globally right now, and no two artists did more in tandem to bring it mainstream over the past two decades than Jay and ‘Ye. Their unmatched ambition made it pointless to contest their claims. No one was trying as hard as them. Even if the products weren’t as pure as they were in the Roc’s heyday, they were still setting the pace.
In 2013, no one could reasonably argue that Kanye and Jay were washed, even if they didn’t like their latest efforts. MCHG was the premier for Jay’s most creative marketing scheme — selling his first million copies to Samsung, guaranteeing he’d go platinum the second he dropped — and Yeezus was West at his rawest, screaming about the importance of Black-owned things and comparing his interracial relationship to King Kong’s. They weren’t as sharp sonically or lyrically because they had so much going on, but their message of self-expression and independence still came through loud and clear. Even if it didn’t seem like they were broadcasting out of the same booth anymore.
2014: The Poetry
By 2014, they were teaching “The Poetry of Jay Z and Kanye West” at the University of Missouri (You already know that made Breitbart and them mad). Beyoncé was the unquestioned Queen of American popular culture, and Rihanna’s pop reign solidified what Kanye lovingly described as “The Grammy Family.” They still toured and released videos, but the overall consensus was that Rap was going through a shift. Kendrick Lamar, and Drake were more compelling to young fans. And Gucci Mane, Rick Ross and 2 Chainz were vastly exceeding their output, flooding the streets and tweets with content that had suddenly turned Jay and Ye into old news.
The Throne’s quest to establish their dominance had sacrificed their foothold of the hood. The Roc’s credibility was now measured in corporate dollars, not the reaction from Funk Flex sets at The Tunnel or on Hot 97. But they were also bonafide legends and pop culture icons with the same social capital as Obama and Michael Jordan.
2015: The Grammy Family
As Obama’s second term in office came to an end, a shadow came back over America — and The Throne. Donald Trump’s campaign swept up the white masses that Jay and ‘Ye had spent the past two decades pissing off. Hov and Bey responded with powerful pro-Black messages, but Kanye seemed conflicted on where to side in the impending culture war.
As the election season heated up, Jay sent shots at Tomi Lahren and the Carter’s threw their weight behind Hillary Clinton. But Kanye was stuck in La-La Land, trying to balance his Hollywood relationship with Kim Kardashian with his social responsibility to his fans and supporters. When he awkwardly aborted interrupting another acceptance speech — Beck’s — it was unclear to everyone, including Hov and Bey, if the stunt was a cheeky nod to his past histrionics or something deeper was amiss. The looks of concern and relief show that Yeezy’s stressful antics may have been wearing thin.
2016: The Life Of Pablo
2016 starts with Kanye running his mouth on Twitter and at concerts. Between dissing the executives at Nike, Apple and Facebook, Ye was begging desperately for money from a Medici like figure; He wasn’t ashamed to admit that he needed someone to bail him out of the many creative investments and sacrifices he’s made over the years.
West has always been emotionally and financially unstable — those traits made him relatable in a day of super hustlers and gangsters who showed no weakness —But by 2016 his “self—centered—conscious” act had worn out its welcome. His music was still amazing, but the Internet had removed much of the mystique from his recording process. After Drake was exposed by Meek Mill for using ghostwriters like Quentin Miller to boost his bars, attention was also shifted to ‘Ye, who had for years used friends, mentors and understudies, like Rhymefest, Lupe Fiasco, Consequence, Pusha T and Kid Cudi for the same purpose. The album broke streaming records thanks to its revolutionary digital-only release, but much of the musical credit was given to mentees Chance The Rapper and Travis Scott.
By the end of the year, it became clear that Kanye had actually lost his mind, and not in a funny way. Then, a series of rants about The Throne’s lack of communication definitely embarrassed the notoriously private Carter-Knowles family. Basically, Kanye dry snitched on both Jay (asking him not to send his “shooters” at his head) and Bey (claiming she was involved in a shady MTV VMA move that earned her an award over him). Kanye’s messy reveals seemed to be the last straw for the Big Homie and Queen Bey.
2017: “Kill Jay Z,” “Bam”
At 4:44 am, Jay-Z woke up and decided to tell the truth. That included admitting to his infidelities (which everyone already knew about), but the most surprising revelation came at the expense of his little brother’s ego.
On 2016’s Pablo, West bragged that he had been hitting the gym to work “all chest, no legs.” Jay took the opportunity to jab little bro for being a chatty patty with the line, “Niggas skipping leg day just to run their mouth,” on 4:44’s “Bam.”
Still, the most controversial line came on the intro, where Jay reveals the real cause of his frustration. “You got hurt because you did cool by Ye,” said Jay to himself. “You gave him $20 million without blinking/He gave you 20 minutes on stage, fuck was he thinking?”
Things ain’t been the same since. It’s not clear if Jay was also mocking ‘Ye’s sanity with the next line, “If everyone is crazy, you’re the one that’s insane,” but that hasn’t stopped reports that blame their wives for the feud.
Thankfully, 2 Chainz says they are most likely still cool. When he hung out with West in the studio, Jay’s name was a topic of discussion, and all signs pointed to the possibility of a Watch The Throne 2.