4:07pm

Tue August 9, 2011
Music Reviews

Jay-Z And Kanye West: Stuck In Cruise Control

My favorite part of Watch the Throne, the new joint release by Kanye West and Jay-Z, was waiting for it to come out. With no leaks and no advances, we were all reduced to waiting together, resurrecting the memory of rushing record-store doors the day of release.

The grim irony is that today, the cost of a leak-proof release is borne by those same brick-and-mortar stores, who were cut out of Watch the Throne's sales action: The album came out Tuesday as an iTunes exclusive, and the physical release will be limited to Best Buy stores at first. From a fan's point of view, though, there was something giddy in the collective experience of counting down the minutes until the album went live. But after the downloading comes the listening.

At the very least, Watch the Throne is competent — the predictable product of two immense talents who have already spent 10 years working well together. In fact, the two rappers play so nicely with one another, it's easy to forget that Jay-Z used to be West's mentor. On Watch the Throne, it's clearly Kanye's musical vision that reigns supreme.

As with his last album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West and his co-producers push a big, plush pop sound, weighted with layers of synthesizer swells and piercing vocal samples. At the same time, if Jay-Z seems content to let West steer the album sonically, his contribution comes from finally whipping his flow back into shape.

The biggest problem with Watch the Throne is that, with all that competence and goodwill, there isn't much to accelerate the album past cruise control. There's no real tension or conflict — no hunger. Instead, you have two pop superstars penning luxury raps about their access to excess. Excitement is generated from swinging for the fences, not the victory lap that follows.

One of the album's genuinely compelling moments is "New Day," a self-reflective ode to the imaginary children each rapper might one day have. It's a moment of intense, tortured introspection, which has been a specialty of both men.

That song aside, little on Watch the Throne ranks among the best of either artist's catalog. There's no sustained sense of exhilaration, let alone transcendent magic — especially for an album that nakedly aspires to "make history." In the end, it's a decent project by two good artists. There's no reason that should feel like a disappointment ... so why does it?

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Related Program