I’ll admit to having a fair share of trepidation prior to hearing Kanye West & Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne album. Let’s face it, Jay-Z’s had a pretty rotten track record when it comes to collaborations. How many of you still bump those Best of Both Worlds albums with R. Kelly? What about that Collision Course thing with Linkin Park? No? Me neither. Actually, my copies of all three of those albums (yes, I bought all three) are now in the hands of others, because I sold dem muhfuckas back. Boo yah.

So, despite the fact that I’m a hardcore fan of both Jay and Kanye and would probably listen to anything they do short of re-recording a Ke$ha album (and they’d probably even make THAT better), I thought there were going to be massive chemistry issues with Watch the Throne. Sure, Jay and ‘Ye’s previous collaborations were fairly solid, but…a whole album? My mind wasn’t feeling it.

As it turns out, Watch the Throne is a damn good album. Not as good as The College Dropout, Late Registration, The Blueprint or The Black Album, but right at the top of that next level down.  The production alone makes it a great buy. With an all-star team of boardsmen such as Kanye protégé 88 Keys, Jay-Z standbys The Neptunes and the legendary Pete Rock (with Kanye’s name in the production credits for many songs, which probably means that he took a second pass over all the original tracks), this album bangs straight through. And it’s pretty versatile for a hip-hop album, too. The songs range from bright, sunny radio productions (like the Beyonce-assisted “Lift Off”, although to my ears, it’s the worst song on the set) to the soulful cutups of Otis Redding & Curtis Mayfield to slightly avant-garde (for hip-hop anyway) sound motifs. It’s a testament to his influence to hear how other producers (many with identifiable sounds-like RZA) adapt themselves to Kanye so much that many tracks sound like ‘Ye solo productions. After listening to Watch the Throne, you can officially start considering ‘Ye in those Greatest Hip-Hop Producer of All Time conversations.

Things get a little shaky on the lyrical tip, and this is where Jay doesn’t totally hold up his end of the bargain. Look, Kanye is not, has never been and will never be a champion emcee from a technical standpoint. He gets by on heart and feeling (which puts him in the league of emcees whose emotion is enough to make up for technical issues, like 2Pac and Chuck D-not bad company). Jay’s supposed to be the rhyme animal, and although there are a few songs where he sounds like 2001-era Jigga (his Beyonce appreciation verse of “That’s My Bitch” and his cold-blooded takedown of the entire Roc-a-Fella team on “Why I Love You” are highlights), there are also songs where he seems to be resting on his laurels (after Kanye’s inspiring verse on the somber “Made in America”, Jay almost completely derails the track). I think part of the issue is that he doesn’t have much to say anymore. He’s still reminiscing on his crack-dealing days (20 years in the past now), still shouting out Biggie (God bless the dead, but give it up already), and come to think of it…it’s the same problem I had with the otherwise excellent Blueprint 3.  Jigga doesn’t sound totally invested anymore. It’s like he’s struggling to find new things to say, and recycling past glories in the meantime.

Believe it or not, though, Jay’s shortcomings are only minor detail when you shake everything out. There’s only one out and out bad song (the aforementioned “Lift Off”) on the album. Once you sort that out, there’s more than enough “oh shit” moments topically, lyrically and especially musically to make Watch the Throne more than worth the price of admission. As much as this album would probably have been just as good (or better?) as a Kanye solo album with Jay guesting on a few tracks, this is the first collaboration album Jay-Z’s done that’s even tolerable, and given his history, that says a lot.

Grade: A-

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