The royal rappers launched their new album, Watch the Throne, at New York's Museum of Natural History on Monday. Read our first impressions as they jostle for hip-hop's crown
Is it possible for a listening party to be too opulent? Not for hip-hop's two biggest stars, Jay-Z and Kanye West, who held a party for about 400 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York on Monday to celebrate their long-promised collaboration, Watch the Throne.
A bar boasting acres of hors d'oeuvres (we sampled chicken and pineapple satay, lobster rolls, and sweet potato fritters with caramel-pecan glaze), and string-heavy 70s soul set the mood for the main event. Or, more cynically, helped lull a bunch of hacks into hitting Twitter as soon as their mobiles were returned after the playback, praising the album to the skies. (Search #watchthethrone and scroll down for the full, OK-guys-that'll-do details.)
It didn't hurt that the playback was held in the planetarium, under images of shifting constellations. There were plenty of real-life star bodies as well: Q-Tip, who co-produced two of Watch the Throne's tracks (Lift Off, featuring Beyonc�, and Prime Time) was in the domed auditorium before the gathered throng, and he was eventually joined by Kelly Rowland, Jada Pinkett-Smith, and Busta Rhymes, among others. But none of it would have meant anything if the album had disappointed. Itdidn't.
That isn't to say it's an obvious classic ? one listen isn't enough to determine that ? but it is impressive. Both rappers sound hungry, if restrained, like they're giving each other room. Kanye keeps looking for new angles, both lyrically and in rhyming cadence, while Jay-Z seems more like he's comfortable taking aim, firing and hitting. When it was over, Jay-Z got explained that the album took nine months and three attempts to make. One was finished and, apparently, impressively bombastic but not particularly listenable. Good for them for being shrewd enough to know the difference.
1. No Church in the Wild (ft Frank Ocean)
(prod. Kanye West and 88-Keys)
Over stalking bass, Kanye murmurs "What's a king without a god?" before Jay-Z fires off a strong verse. West is sly and clipped, describing someone as "striped like a zebra/ I call that jungle fever." Frank Ocean sings the hook through a vocoder.
2. Lift Off (ft Beyonc�)
(prod. Kanye West, Mike Dean, Jeff Bhasker, Q-Tip and Don Jazzy)
As galaxies form overhead, Beyonc� sings "Take you to the moon/ Take you to the stars." Now that's selling it. The track is bombastic ? the synths recall The Final Countdown by Europe, full of triumphalist opulence.
3. Niggas in Paris
(prod. Hit-Boy, Kanye West, Mike Dean and Anthony Kilhoffer)
This percolating track could have been produced by Wiley, with sick sub-bass and a snare that sounds like static. Both rappers are in excellent form, with Jay-Z repeating "That shit cray" ? we are left to fill in the "-zy". Kanye begins in half-time and speeds up. Among the lines that jump out: "I'm suffering from realness" and "Don't let me get in my zone." A standout track.
4. Otis (ft Otis Redding)
(prod. Kanye West)
You know this one already ? more beats tied to the bass, as is largely the case on the three tracks preceding it.
5. Gotta Have It
(prod. the Neptunes and Kanye West)
Kanye: "LOLOLOL, America/ Try and assassinate my character."
6. New Day
(prod. RZA, Kanye West, Mike Dean and Ken Lewis)
Now here's a song topic: how Jay and 'Ye plan to raise their as-yet-hypothetical boys. Kayne: "I won't let my son have an ego/ Be nice to everyone wherever we go." And later, in a nod to his notorious comment about George W Bush, he talks about raising his son "Republican, so they know he likes white people".
7. Prime Time
(prod. Q-Tip, Kanye West and Jeff Bhasker)
Throwback time! The scratched-in "ba-bada-you" from Public Enemy's Brothers Gonna Work It Out, the Incredible Bongo Band's Apache conga break, and a chorus that is "very late-80s". Of course it is ? they sampled it from La Roux.
8. Welcome to the Jungle
(prod. Swizz Beatz, Mike Dean and Ken Lewis)
Squabbly, mnemonic guitar forms the backdrop here. Great twist on an already worn theme: Jay-Z's "Rest in peace to the leader of the Jackson 5."
9. Who Gon Stop Me
(prod. Sham "Sak Pase" Joseph, Kanye West and Mike Dean)
"I can't stop-op-op-op-op-op": Romping, ravey synths, a big stomp without much give. West: "This is something like a holocaust/ Millions of our people lost."
10. Murder to Excellence
(prod. Swizz Beatz and Symbolyc One)
The obvious centerpiece of the album, its grandest statement: "It's all love," Kanye raps, "I love us" ? meaning black America. "Pay-per-view murder/ Black-on-black murder," goes one oft-repeated line, with "black excellence" later replacing it. Congas courtesy of William DeVaughn's Be Thankful for What You've Got.
11. Sweet Baby Jesus (ft Frank Ocean)
(prod. Sham "Sak Pase" Joseph and Mike Dean)
Instead of looking forward to new family, this one looks back at old: Jay-Z raps about his "grandma" (which he rhymes with "star-spangled banner"), Kanye talks about meeting his producer No ID in Chicago and "getting high on my own supply" ? of beats, naturally.
12. Why I Love You (ft Mr. Hudson)
(prod. Mike Dean and Kanye West)
Mr Hudson's hook sounds like a pitch-shifted old Ratt record, shrieking hair-metal bombast. The track and verses are pretty good, though, with Jay-Z snarling, "Got a pistol under my pit bull." The song, and album, ends abruptly, which is satisfying.