By Brad Wete
Updated July 08, 2011 at 05:50 PM EDT
Credit: Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for VEVO

Leave it to hip-hop’s smoothest star to break up the tension in a crowded room.

“Why don’t you sit on the floor,” Jay-Z, clad in a Yankees cap, white v-neck tee, and matching shell-toe Adidas, asked the few people lingering around the entrance to his Mercer Hotel suite in Manhattan’s Soho last night. “We can make it like camp.” The revered rhymer invited friends and a select few journalists for an early listen of Watch the Throne, his long-awaited full-length collaboration with Kanye West (who was notably absent from the evening).

The room—one of many Jay and ‘Ye had transformed into a full-blown recording studio at the luxury New York inn since the beginning of the year—is still decked out with equipment: an MPC drum machine here, keyboards and microphones there. The duo is still buffing and polishing Throne, so we were asked not to quote any lyrics, since they might change before the release date. (Still to be determined, but Jay promises “soon.”)

Simply put: Throne proves to be a masterpiece. No exaggeration. Though it was mostly crafted here in New York, songs were also written in Paris, Australia, and Bath, England. The influences of the international locales are evident, but its the true grit of New York’s hip-hop spirit that truly shines through.And though the title suggests pomposity and majesty, Throne is lyrically well-balanced and accessible. There are opulent raps dripping with swag for sure, but also plenty that smack of militancy, worry, and grief.

Speaking of grief, Jay diffused any notions of conflict between he and Kanye, offering up instead an anecdote that made West seem downright generous. Back in 2009, Jay told West that “Run This Town” would be the first single off of Blueprint 3. West, who produced the track and offered some verse for it, opposed: He said he’d just attended a barbecue where “Town” played, but didn’t get a big response.Jay’s “Empire State of Mind” would be a better look, Kanye insisted.

Jay ended going with “Town” first, followed by his now-ubiquitous New York anthem. They both were smashes. But Jay said that the story exemplified West’s drive to win—even if it means sacrificing his own ego. “He’s difficult to work with for specific, well-intentioned reasons,” Jay said.

Below is a track-by-track description of Throne’s cuts. Mind you, all titles given (and some weren’t) are subject to change.

“No Church” – Features Odd Future R&B wonder Frank Ocean contrasting deities to mortals. Kanye and Jay rap of struggling, then conquering, over the roars of vicious animals.

“Lift Off” – This is likely the first single and features Jay’s better half—yep, Beyoncé—who uses her radiant outdoor voice to sing about rising to cosmic heights in life, spilling over tumbling drums and jabbing synths.

“That S— Crack” – A swaggering effort on which Jay compares his skills to Michael Jordan in his iconic Bulls finale and Kanye claims that his version on the royal wedding would include a certain pair of famous twins.

“Otis” – Brilliantly samples Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” to produce the most tag-teamy of the album’s cuts. Jay and ‘Ye jump in and out of the ring, with Jay asserting he created the blueprint (get it?) from which rappers now follow, and Kanye references Audio Two’s “Top Billin’.” They’re chillin’.

[Untitled] – A sullen cut that sounds like it’s probably produced by RZA. The guys both apologize to their unborn kids for the lives they’ll inherit: Jay is sorry his kid will have paparazzi lenses on him from birth, while Kanye promises that his son will be the exact opposite of him, meaning perfectly behaved—and possibly Republican.

“Living So Italian” – Sampling Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli’s “Con te Partiro,” Jay, displaying more of his American Gangster visage, coolly drops mafia slang. This is regal rap at its finest.

“Who Gon’ Stop Me?” – Jay pats himself on the back being a self-made millionaire even though he doesn’t have a reputable pedigree, giving the finger to those who thought he’d never make it.

“For Paper We Murder” – The duo attack societal ills like black-on-black crime, wars, and deadbeat dads.

“Sweet Baby Jesus” or “Made It in America” – An uplifting cut, supported by hard drums—and the second with Frank Ocean.

“I Love You So” – Likely the album’s final track. The pair find their kingdoms crumbling around them. Jay raps of having his heart stomped on and, over menacing strings, explains why he’s so guarded. The throne is in danger! Perfect cliffhanger and springboard to Watch the Throne 2, which Jay said is a possibility.

Oh, and remember “H.A.M.,” the single they dropped in January? Jay said they’re not even sure it will make the album. Performing it in concert is amazing, he says, but hearing it at home is an unpleasant experience. “I don’t want to hear all those voices screaming at me in the house,” he joked.

Are you excited for Jay and Kanye’s collaboration? Do you think it’s poised to be the album of the year?

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