The most anticipated rap event of the year is finally here: Jay-Z and Kanye West (a.k.a. the Throne) will release their full-length collaboration, Watch the Throne, on iTunes on August 8th, with an arena tour to follow in the fall. To say expectations are high would be a major understatement. “Fuck it, it’s non-arguable,” West told Rolling Stone while the LP was taking shape. “Me and Jay-Z are the two most influential rappers of the last decade. We know how to make music that changes what everyone else does.”
Watch the Throne came together in top-secret sessions in England, Paris, Australia, Los Angeles and New York, whenever the two MCs’ schedules allowed them to meet in person. “If we were gonna do it, we were gonna do it together,” Jay-Z recently said. “No mailing it in.” Their chemistry is off the charts on the resulting tracks, as the pair trade witty and introspective rhymes over massive wall-of-sound synths, hard-hitting drums and vintage-soul samples. Only a few guests show up, including Beyonce (who delivers a huge, radio-ready hook on “Lift Off”) and Odd Future crooner Frank Ocean (who nearly steals the show on his two appearances). West produced much of the album himself, with assists from old-school vets such as Q-Tip and RZA. “Kanye asked me to send tracks while they were in Australia,” says RZA, who produced the grimy “New Day.” “I wanted to send them real edgy shit. This project is the best of many worlds – I’m really honored to be a part of it.”
Jay-Z and Kanye have taken an unusually understated approach to rolling out Watch the Throne, avoiding media appearances and choosing the hook-free rhymefest “Otis” as their lead single – catnip for hardcore fans, but not so much for radio promoters. Another sign that maximizing sales might not be a priority: The deluxe two-CD edition of Watch the Throne will only be available in Best Buy for the first 10 days, shutting out independent retailers. And in the biggest gamble of all, they’re giving the album away as a free download for anyone who buys presale tickets to their fall tour. “For these guys, it’s really smart,” says Jim Guerinot, manager of No Doubt, who gave away the band’s entire back catalog to ticketholders on its 2009 reunion tour. “The fans will get the chance to come in knowing the full album. It’s not the most financially rewarding way of doing it, but that’s not what these guys are trying to do.”
This is a story from the August 18th, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.