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Rap kings: Jay-Z and Kanye on The Throne

Jay-Z, right, and Kanye West perform at the

Jay-Z, right, and Kanye West perform at the MTV Video Music Awards in Los Angeles. (Aug. 28, 2011) Credit: AP

Kings aren't known for their cooperation. They're known for their battles.

It's a phenomenon as old as the ages, extending from military campaigns to big business and even the music industry. But have things really changed that drastically? Trying to determine that is why everyone is watching The Throne.

Jay-Z and Kanye West, two of hip-hop's reigning monarchs, have fostered a new spirit of collaboration with their new group The Throne and a massive, extravagant tour that launched last month and hits New York Monday.

It goes well beyond the teamwork seen in joint but mostly separate packages like Billy Joel and Elton John's "Face to Face" tours or the annual summer outings for Chicago and Earth, Wind and Fire. Jay-Z and West's joining forces as equals would be like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones performing together in the same band in the '60s or Prince and Michael Jackson teaming up in the '80s. In other words, seemingly impossible -- yet, here they are.

Jay-Z has had more No. 1 albums than any other solo artist in history, outpacing both Jackson and Elvis Presley. West has been the most critically acclaimed rapper of the decade, as well as the most controversial, taking on everything from President George W. Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina to Taylor Swift's MTV Video Music Awards win for best female video.

Brotherly love

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Their collaboration is even more remarkable because it comes in hip-hop, an art form that has battling built into it and a business that has used beefing between rappers as a marketing strategy. However, their friendship and mutual respect has apparently made this unlikely union possible.

"He's really like a brother to me," Jay-Z says in a documentary on the making of The Throne's debut album "Watch The Throne" (Roc-a-Fella), which hit No. 1 in August and set the record for most-downloaded album on iTunes in one week. "I've seen him from the beginning to where he is now. . . . To see how he's grown as a producer and an artist, for me on another level, is enjoyable. I'm watching a guy I pretty much minted become his own guy with his own opinion. It's fantastic."

West is equally deferential. "Sitting in here in the studio two hours out of London, it's really setting in on me that I'm actually doing a rap album with Jay-Z, he wrote last year on Twitter, the main way he communicates with his audience now that he has essentially stopped doing interviews. "I was in the audience at Hard Knock Life Tour!!!!!!!"

True collaboration

The "Watch the Throne" album did not disappoint, proving itself as a true collaboration, with both Jay and 'Ye pushing each other to do better. Their talks during the recording of the album about striving to do their best, the way Jackson did during the recording sessions for "Thriller," seemed to pay off.

The tour, according to early accounts, is just as ambitious. It has an impressive 41-song set list, a massive stage set that includes giant video cubes and reportedly requires 27 trucks to haul around, and a whole lot of interplay between Jay-Z and West -- both on The Throne songs and on their own songs -- that matches their intricate rhyme schemes on their album.

"When they blended their formidable talents, as on 'Otis' . . . Jay-Z and West were a rather dynamic duo," wrote Melissa Ruggieri in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Their enjoyment sharing the stage was obvious as they led the crowd through the refrain of 'Run This Town' and chanted over the heavy, chest-rattling bass in 'Monster' as more video of wild animals played behind them."

Enjoyment goes a long way in explaining how this unusual partnership has stuck together, even after there were rumors swirling about behind-the-scenes arguments and a delay in the tour.

Jay-Z has acknowledged the arguments, but denied any problems. "Yes, we get on each other's nerves," he told Hot 97 this summer. "We push each other to be greater. Of course, there are times when we're in the studio and we're yelling."

It's the kind of disagreement that would be expected when two superstars used to getting their way run into each other. However, it seems that Jay and 'Ye have pushed beyond that.

So does the success of The Throne signal a drop in artistic competition and the start of widespread superstar collaboration in the name of greater music? Or is this project simply a savvy business proposition, a way for two stars to guarantee a successful outcome in increasingly unsuccessful times?

We'll have to keep watching The Throne to see how it turns out.

WHO The Throne

WHEN|WHERE 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Izod Center, East Rutherford, N.J., and 7:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, Madison Square Garden, Manhattan

INFO $51.50-$250 (Izod); $69.50-$350 (MSG); 800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com

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