The opening track from Watch The Throne, a collaborative studio album by American rappers Jay-Z and Kanye West, features Odd Future singer Frank Ocean. During a listening session held in the Mercer Hotel, Jay-Z said that he reached out to the R&B crooner after hearing his Nostalga, Ultra mixtape and asked him to contribute to some solo tracks. After their initial work went well, Hova invited Ocean to sing on a couple of Watch The Throne tunes as well.
The song samples "K Scope" by Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera from his 1978 art-rock solo album K-Scope. Speaking to The Independent, Manzanera recalled how the request from the two superstar rappers took him by complete surprise. "Even I had completely forgotten about that track, so I wondered how the hell did they find this riff from this obscure album?" he said. "I looked into it and I found a film on YouTube of Jay Z and Kanye recording in a hotel suite in New York. There's a guy called 88-Keys who is friends with Kanye West and he looks round record shops, digging through old bits of vinyl. I think he was going through the bargain bin of a vinyl shop and came across it."
"The genius thing is, they slowed it down," Manzanera added. "What nobody knows is that it's not just a guitar playing. I've got this huge harmonica: it's about a foot long and you blow this one note along with the first beat of every bar and it creates this weird sort of slightly sinister riff. When it's slowed down, that combined with that guitar low note creates this very special sound."
The beat was supplied by producer/rapper 88-Keys who first came across Kanye in the early 2000s when the two were both living in Newark, NJ. Kanye executive-produced his 2008 debut album, The Death of Adam, and appeared on the single "Stay Up! (Viagra)." 88-Keys also produced tracks for West's 2007 Graduation album as well as Jay-Z's 2003, The Black Album, neither of which made the final cut.
88-Keys' production credit came about when he was passing by on June 10, 2011 and popped in to say hello to Kanye. The Chicago maestro was recording for The Throne project with Jay-Z, Q-Tip, No I.D. and engineer Noah Goldstein, and asked his pal if he had any beats on him. 88-Keys played 20 of his beats that were catalogued on SoundCloud. "Everybody in the room just started going crazy," he recalled to MTV News. 60 minutes later they had singled out the beat that would become this song. Kanye told his pal what additions he wanted made, "add an extra kick drum on there... a heavier bass line and strings," 88 recalled 'Ye suggesting.
Over the next few days, Jay-Z and Kanye recorded their verse. For a while, the song remained unfinished. "I didn't actually hear the final product 'til the morning of the listening at the Planetarium" [on Aug. 1], 88 said.
The Def Jam VP of A&R Bu Thiam was with Kanye and Jay throughout the recording process. He recalled to MTV News: "Collectively [working with Frank Ocean] was both of their ideas. It was like, 'Yo this guy is incredible.' They were a fan of him prior and it was like, 'Yo we should fly him to New York to come out here.' [Frank] went in and he just went to work. That kid is incredible, man. That particular record was one take. It just was like, [sings] 'What's a king to a God.' We were actually in the room like, 'Yo he f---ing nailed it.' "
The-Dream also contributed vocals, but is not credited on the track listing.
The song was featured in the trailers for the action film Safe House and the 2012 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby.
The music video was filmed in late April 2012 on locations in Prague, Czech Republic by acclaimed French director Romain Gavras, (M.I.A.'s "Born Free
"). It features citizens of the Czech Republic city rioting against the government, but doesn't include either Jay or 'Ye.