Popular music doesn’t lend itself well to the concept of collaboration albums in the same way that say, jazz does. Ella and Basie, Duke Ellington & John Coltrane are definitive records from the Jazz era. With the exception of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan & The Band, I can’t think of a popular music full album collaboration that is truly essential.
Collaborations are best when they are usually kept to a single song. David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure” is a high point for both artists, and to this day remains a classic rock staple. It’s mostly known for its now famous bass line but the song is so focused in its attack that neither artist takes over the spotlight. Mercury is at his eccentric best and is counter-balanced by Bowie’s restraint. Aerosmith and Run DMC’s mash-up of “Walk This Way” was groundbreaking when it came out for bringing hip-hop and rock together.
But collaborations can be hard to pull off for an entire album. The same forces that can create a single great collaboration make for a bloated and messy affair when sprawled across 45 minutes. Too often, one artist’s vision takes over the album, and the concept of a “true collaboration” is lost. U2’s side-project with Brian Eno dubbed Passengers, sounds more like a Brian Eno record than a U2 one, with its ambient sounds and loose song structures. Neil Young’s 1995 effort, Mirrorball with Pearl Jam is a Crazy Horse record, only with Pearl Jam as the backing band.
The best collaborative albums are ones that have a specific theme or thread running throughout. Elvis Costello’s The River in Reverse with Allen Toussaint is a direct response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The damage of the Hurricane is felt throughout the album as well as the musical heritage of New Orleans. When Billy Bragg and Wilco teamed up to provide music for some Woody Guthrie poems, they honored Guthrie’s legacy while also updating it. The Roots joint album with John Legend gave a whole new spin on classic Soul and R&B protest songs.
So, despite my love for both Kanye West and Jay-Z, I’m a bit skeptical about their collaborative effort, Watch the Throne. Usually the two rappers bring out the best in each other. West brought creative new ground with his now patented soul samples to Jay-Z’s Blueprint back in 2001. Jay-Z, in return offered up some of his best verses in years, on West’s latest effort My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Prior to this, any song that the two artists did together was credited (at least commercially) to one or the other. As such, the song is tailored accordingly. Kanye’s songs are usually emotive with a large collage of sounds, which sometimes push the standard structure of a hip-hop song, while Jay-Z’s songs tend to be more direct with his lyrics at the forefront.
Because Kanye and Jay-Z are among the most ambitious and creative men in hip-hop (and perhaps even music in general), neither might be willing to let their own ideas go to waste. Upon first listen, “Otis” sounded brilliant with its sample of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness”, but on subsequent listens it seemed to lose its power. It seems more like a collage of two half-baked ideas. If it’s Kanye decided he had a great idea for a beat, but before he could actually create a real song out of it, Jay-Z decided they should just throw some rhymes.
While I’m writing this, I just read that Watch the Throne broke the ITunes record for most downloads. I’m certainly not surprised since ITunes is the only carrier for Watch the Throne at the moment. While Watch the Throne might be an exciting moment right now, it could end up the way of Jay-Z’s effort with R. Kelly Best of Both Worlds – a small blip on an otherwise stellar career.