When Watch the Throne, Jay-Z and Kanye West's long-awaited studio alliance, finally hits brick-and-mortar stores on August 12, it will be the culmination of months of hype. If early hints are to be believed, it will also be the latest in a strange and storied line of artistically deficient unions between superstars — the collaboration, that musical equivalent of the Hollywood vanity project. Indeed, leaked tracks seem inconsonant with Throne's lengthy gestation period: "Otis," a slice of greasy ham featuring hyperactive but feeble performances from both Jay and Ye, is both hero- and self-worship, all the lifeblood sadistically drained out of the Otis Redding sample that provides the muddled basis for the track.
But what of the collaboration? It's a befuddling historical object, a devious entity with origins that often lie miles outside the realm of pure artistry. "Nelly's management called mine," lamented Tim McGraw in a 2004 Entertainment Weekly interview when asked about "Over and Over," his collaborative single with the "Hot in Herre" mastermind. It points to the key reason behind the continuous creative failure of the concept: Studio head cigar-chompers with airplay charts in hand, ever-eager for the next big moneymaking thing, give it the green light, no matter how fundamentally objectionable. For shame, it often works. Collision Course, Linkin Park's odorous outing with the omnipresent Jay-Z (himself more mogul than musician nowadays), has sold nearly two million copies to date.
The most prevailing sociological explanation for the collaboration is an embroidered sense of self-worth. Metallica's transformation from heavy-metal demigods to preposterous clown-human hybrids was capped by the 2004 documentary Some Kind of Monster, but it was solidified five years earlier with the band's live double-album S&M, a grotesque alliance with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. It doesn't take a shrink to see the narcissism involved in thinking so much of your music's magnitude to commission a symphony to underscore the point. Planet Earth could have endured its entire life cycle without bearing witness to "Nothing Else Matters," backed by an oppressive string arrangement. But, crime against nature, it did not.
Still, not all collaborators are corporate puppets or ego monsters. What is it that makes well-respected musicians embark on these kamikaze missions? On this plane the reason usually lies with a principle, a belief in some noble cause. Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder needed to lecture the world on the merits of racial harmony, because that sort of thing was in vogue in 1982, but also because they had something important to say. Unfortunately for all, "Ebony and Ivory" was a gooey gumdrop of a tune whose children's-lit message couldn't overcome its schmaltzy frame. These ostensibly high-level artists are prey to an inability to self-edit. When all involved are thusly convinced of some terrible idea and there is no one around ballsy enough to contain them, that idea gains legs and starts running, keeps running, all the way to the edge of the cliff. And then it jumps.
It's no surprise that the most glaring example of the good-cause motivator gone bad was another product of the 1980s, that gold mine of excess and heavy-handed pop-culture moralizing. "We Are the World," the great communal ego-stroke for Africa, is a tricky beast because it's a combination of all three foundations of collaborative misery: A&R influence, rampant egoism, slipshod sermonizing. With its coke-fueled conceit and balloon-headed bravado, the song remains a benchmark of sorts, a standard-bearer of solipsism.
Of course, Watch the Throne is no "We Are the World" — conceptually, it's downright modest in comparison. Still, the project shows telltale signs of trouble. For all its PR buildup, it hasn't exactly come together like clockwork; through the better part of this year, date after announced release date has come and gone unheeded. Even Kanye seems to have shrugged his shoulders, prompting a light scolding from his erstwhile mentor, who told Sky magazine, "I need to get [Kanye] to focus so we can finish this."
Indeed, history suggests — and early leaks confirmed — that Watch the Throne will be a bloated blip on the radar, a confluence of ego and public relations designed for quick consumption and destined for irrelevance. Even so, I'm not ready to write these guys off just yet. Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was debatably the best album of 2010, and though Jay hasn't really seemed relevant since The Black Album, he is a continual presence, a commanding figure in a bleak cultural landscape. Long live the kings. But please, fellas, not together.