Last night, Jay-Z invited a handful of reporters to a hotel in Soho to hear Watch the Throne, his highly anticipated full-length collaboration with Kanye West. Arriving minutes before 9 P.M. – just as soon as he could tear himself away from watching the Yankees game to see if Derek Jeter made his 3000th hit – he led the group upstairs from the lobby to a small suite, where we crowded onto couches and accepted flutes of his favorite aperitif, Armand de Brignac champagne. Lucky teenaged fans named James and Derek, two of the first people to pre-order Watch the Throne earlier this week, were also in attendance; West was not.
Exuding casual cool in jeans, a white t-shirt and a backward Yankees cap, Jay-Z hunched over a black MacBook connected to massive speakers. What we were about to hear was a work in progress, he explained. Most of the songs don't have confirmed titles, and all lyrics and track sequencing are still subject to change substantially before the album's release date (another detail that has yet to be finalized). "This is the first single," he announced as he cued up a cascade of circular guitar riffs and polyrhythmic percussion. Just kidding! That wasn't anything from Watch the Throne, just a random MP3 of Malian duo Amadou et Mariam's 2005 jam "Coulibaly."
The joke worked because of the secrecy surrounding Watch the Throne. Security on this project has been so tight that none of the journalists in the room had previously heard any of the 11 tracks Jay-Z went on to play. The only taste anyone had gotten was "H.A.M.," the bombastic single released in January – which wasn't included in last night's playlist, and which Jay-Z said might not even make the final album ("We're going back and forth"). So what does this epic meeting of the minds sound like? Read on for first-listen impressions of all 11 tracks.
1. The first track we heard, tentatively titled "No Church," is Jay-Z's current favorite of the bunch. It's easy to see why. An apocalyptic rumble of a beat backdrops a diabolically earwormy hook (courtesy of Odd Future crooner Frank Ocean) about religion and power. Jay-Z unspools brainy couplets about great thinkers like Socrates, Plato, Jesus, Kanye and himself; Kanye raps about drugs and sex, among other topics.
2. If "Liftoff" isn't a chart hit within the next year, I'll be surprised. Jay-Z and Kanye get downright triumphal over synthesized fanfare à la West's "All of the Lights," and Beyoncé's anthemic hook is the type of thing that makes radio programmers go weak in the knees. Huge.
3. No one boasts like Jay-Z and Kanye West. Here they talk delightful trash over a fearsome beat that grows from icy synthesizer plinks and minimalist snare attack to a fuzzed-out industrial breakdown. Midway through is a bit of sampled dialogue from 2007's goofy comedy Blades of Glory (Kanye's idea): "No one knows what it means," says Will Ferrell, "but it's provocative."
4. Probably the best song we heard last night, bearing the working title "Otis," spins gold from a chopped-up sample of Otis Redding's classic "Try a Little Tenderness." It's a nice callback to the soul-laced beats Kanye used to give Jay-Z back in 2000 and 2001. ("That's our zone," Jay said later. "That's what we do better than anyone else.") Their rhymes are tricky, showoffy stuff, with the two old friends trading lines like a 21st-century Run-DMC. Every head in the room was nodding by the end of this track.
5. Watch the Throne isn't all braggadocio. This slower, introspective number finds Jay-Z and West both addressing their hypothetical future children. They don't hold back, and the self-doubt and soul-searching in their verses is genuinely moving. I can't recall ever hearing Jay-Z open up quite like this before, not even on "This Can't Be Life." Kanye's verse is pretty special, too – after the playback, Jay-Z said he thinks it's one of Ye's top three performances ever.
6. Back to stunting! A sample of Andrea Bocelli's schmaltzy "Con Te Partirò" gets sped down and mangled into an improbably heavy groove as Jay-Z and Kanye tout their international lifestyle in slick verses. The phrase they chant during the chorus, and presumably the working title for this one, is "Living So Italian." Very catchy. "It was actually fun for us," Jay later explained of this track. "We were laughing."
7. Diced-up vocal snippets and gut-punching bass back aggressive rhymes from Kanye and Jay-Z. One of them references YC's recent hit "Racks on Racks," a nod to the contemporary rap trends this album both embraces and outpaces.
8. A sample of English dubstep producer Flux Pavilion's single "I Can't Stop" comes crashing into an enormous wall of Dirty South synths, and the beat keeps evolving from there. Kanye's opening verse includes a smidgen of Pig Latin, while Jay-Z mythologizes his street-corner-to-corner-office backstory for the ten thousandth time. It's still a damned compelling arc after all these years.
9. Another contemplative interlude, with West thinking about black-on-black crime rates over looped "la la la" harmonies.
10. Frank Ocean's second appearance on the album is another keeper. Hip-hop heads will be singing his honey-voiced, religiously-themed hook all fall. Jay-Z and Kanye keep the thoughtful mood going with verses that revisit their respective rises to fame.
11. More European trend-spotting: A sledgehammer beat built around French house duo Cassius' 2010 single "I Love You So" rolls out while Kanye and Jay-Z indulge in some sullen thoughts regarding unnamed turncoats and ingrates. Slashing violin parts come in on the bridge before the song ends abruptly.
The album was over, but the party wasn't. Most of the writers hung around for another hour and a half while Jay-Z held court, pouring more bubbly and chatting informally about the recording process. One reason for the lengthy wait for Watch the Throne, he explained, is that he and Kanye insisted on collaborating in person. "If we were gonna do it, we were gonna do it together," he said. "No mailing it in." They got started in Bath, England last November and kept going in Australia, Paris, New York and Los Angeles whenever their schedules allowed. As for when the rest of the world will get to hear the finished product, "I'll just say soon," he added. "Not far away. Soon."
When the vibe in the room felt sufficiently loose, Jay-Z leaned back over his laptop and brought out a couple of outtakes that were as strong as anything that's currently slated to make the album. Clearly he and West have no shortage of creative juice going right now. In fact, Jay-Z is already looking forward to his next project – an embryonic solo LP for which he's completed recording two songs, one featuring Frank Ocean. (Alas, he wouldn't play those tunes for us.) Right now, he added toward the end of the night, "I'm really inspired."