How confident are Kanye West and Jay-Z in their abilities? Confident enough to call their first full-fledged venture together Watch the Throne without fear that snarky critics and Internet commenters might suggest that the hotly hyped endeavor is worthy of being flushed.
And the self-assurance of the hip-hop kingpins, it turns out, is not misplaced.
Watch the Throne (Roc-A-Fella *** ½), which went on sale exclusively on iTunes on Monday and will be sold on CD solely at Best Buy starting Friday, is the rare, surprisingly serious-minded superstar collaboration that plays to both parties' strengths.
The duo first worked together when West provided beats for "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" and "Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)," two standout cuts on Jay-Z's 2001 album The Blueprint. They'll tour together this fall as The Throne, including a date at the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia on Nov. 2, for which tickets went on sale Monday.
Despite being as highly anticipated as any album this year, Watch the Throne wins the expectations game. And that's a surprise. Neither "H.A.M.," the operatic boast included as a bonus track on the deluxe edition, nor "Otis," the fun but frivolous cut that samples Otis Redding and was released a few weeks back, suggested that Jay-Z and West would bring out the best in each other.
Happily, evidence of such is plentiful throughout. It starts with the opening track, "No Church in the Wild," in which Frank Ocean of the hip-hop collective Odd Future sets a soul-searching, spiritually inclined tone. Before the marquee attractions are heard, Ocean, in a quietly commanding voice, sings the hook: "What's a king to a God? What's a God to a king? What's a God to a nonbeliever?"
Those questions set the stage for a winning tag-team affair in which two heavy hitters share equal time on the mike, with West's more impetuous yet self-scrutinizing rhymes giving way to Jay-Z's seemingly offhand master-class deliveries.
A thoughtful and effectively playful Watch the Throne track is "New Day," produced by the Wu Tang Clan's The RZA. It finds the MCs musing about growing up fatherless, and promising to do better for their as-yet-unborn sons.
"I'll never let my son have an ego, he'll be nice to everyone wherever we go," West rhymes. In the next couplet, referencing his telethon remarks criticizing George Bush after Hurricane Katrina, he adds: "I'll even make him be a Republican, so everyone knows he like white people."
Jay-Z, 41, insouciantly joshes about the super-celebrity he enjoys with his wife, Beyoncé - who puts her four-alarm voice to work on the party track "Lift Off." "Sorry junior, I already ruined ya," he rhymes. "Ain't even been born yet, paparazzi already pursuing ya."
Already, there have been rumors that behind-the-scenes bickering has set in and was one cause of the duo's fall tour dates being reshuffled last week.
That's only natural. It's impossible for more than one person to be the "Illest [Expletive] Alive," as they each claim to be, in one of the four bonus tracks on the 16-song, $14.99 deluxe edition. But the album shows no signs of unhealthy competition.
Comradely cooperation is more like it. Quality control duties are handled mainly by West, 34, who had a hand in producing nine tracks, working with collaborators that include Q-Tip on "That's My B-" and old-school beatmaker Pete Rock on "The Joy," which samples Curtis Mayfield's "The Makings of You."
The album's centerpiece, the awkwardly titled, highly ambitious "Murder to Excellence," was produced by Swizz Beatz. It's really two songs, and, in its effort to speak to the issue of violent crime in black America and celebrate African American achievement, feels like the handiwork of Jay-Z, the power broker known for palling around with the black president almost as much as West is for dissing a white one.
"The paper read murder, black-on-black murder," the hook repeats, while Jay-Z references 50 Cent:
"What up blood, what up cuz? / It's all black, I love US." From there, he and his partner in rhyme celebrate "black excellence," while bemoaning that it remains lonely at the top. Which is where they both will continue to be for the foreseeable future, judging from the achievements of Watch the Throne.