We got an early earful of the long-awaited album ''Watch the Throne,'' and yes, it's as good as you'd hoped

By Brad Wete
July 15, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT

This year there’s no release as anticipated — or as shrouded in secrecy — as Watch the Throne. Jay-Z, 41, and Kanye West, 34, two solo superstars and longtime friends, have joined forces for a full-length collaboration, and hip-hop fans are waiting with bated breath. It now appears that the album, in the works since last fall, could drop in just a few weeks. So where is the promotional single to heat up the airwaves? The big-budget video that racks up Vevo and YouTube plays? The magazine covers with the pair draped in expensive jewelry or the major TV-show appearances to alert the masses? Well, these top-tier rhymers seem to have no interest in the traditional record-promotion playbook. With 15 No. 1 albums — and not a single flop — between them, the duo seem content to rely on their star power and industry cred to sell albums.

So how are they promoting Throne? On July 7, three days after the set became available for preorder online, Jay-Z, clad in a Yankees cap, white V-neck tee, and shell-toe Adidas, invited friends and a few select journalists — including yours truly — to NYC’s Mercer hotel for an intimate early listen. (West, who has largely steered clear of the press since his November 2010 showdown with Today‘s Matt Lauer, was notably absent.)

The rappers — who have been using two floors of the posh inn as a recording studio since the beginning of the year — are still buffing and polishing Throne, so guests were asked not to quote specific lyrics, since they might change. (Song titles are also still tentative.) But even in its rough state, Throne proves to be a masterpiece. No exaggeration.

Though the disc was mostly crafted in New York, songs were also recorded in Paris, Los Angeles, Australia, and Bath, England. In an era when musicians can link through emails, swapping their verses and edits over the Internet, Jay and Kanye opted to be in the same room at the same time for the entire process. (The two go way back: West got his big break as a record producer on Jay’s 2001 album The Blueprint; Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records went on to release West’s acclaimed debut album, 2004’s The College Dropout.) To record, one would fly to where the other was touring and they’d set up shop. ”If we were going to do it, we were going to do it together,” Jay said. ”No mailing it in.”

The influences of the international locales are evident. ”Living So Italian” aptly samples tenor Andrea Bocelli‘s ”Con Te Partirò.” English dubstep sensation Flux Pavilion’s ”I Can’t Stop” is featured on another walloping cut. But it’s the true grit of hip-hop’s spirit that really shines through on each track, especially on ”Otis,” which finds the tag team bullying all naysayers into submission with their marvelous wordplay.

And though the album title suggests grandiosity and majesty, Throne is lyrically well-balanced and accessible. There are opulent raps dripping with swag for sure — not to mention the mandatory appearance by Jay-Z’s other half, Beyoncé (on the radiant ”Lift Off”) — but several tracks smack of militancy, worry, and grief. (”H.A.M.,” their pompous, bordering-on-pretentious single, was released in January, but now there’s no certainty it’ll even make the final album.)

On one sullen cut, the guys apologize to their future offspring for the lives they’ll inherit: Jay regrets that his kid will have paparazzi lenses on him from birth; Kanye, meanwhile, vows that his son will be the exact opposite of him, meaning perfectly behaved…and possibly Republican. At the listening session, Jay confessed that he almost didn’t want to rap alongside Kanye on this one, because his friend’s affecting verse delves deeply into personal sorrows — including the death of his mother, Donda West.

Aside from occasional creative differences, Jay assured the room that recording with Kanye — a notorious perfectionist known to knock heads in the studio — was a positive experience. ”He’s difficult to work with for specific, well-intentioned reasons,” he said.

So when, exactly, will this joint opus hit stores? No date has been announced, and Jay promises only that it will be ”soon.” But for many, that can’t possibly be soon enough.